No-deal Brexit preparation will carry on after backlash, Theresa May tells civil servants

Written by Matt Foster on 16 April 2019 in News

The move comes just days after the UK Government was criticised following reports that officials had been told to shelve no-deal planning

Theresa May at EU summit - Image credit: PA

Theresa May has told civil servants that "necessary" Whitehall preparations for a no-deal Brexit will carry on despite the latest delay to Britain's EU departure.

In an email to all officials, seen by Holyrood’s sister site PoliticsHome, the Prime Minister says planning for Britain leaving the European Union without an agreement "must continue" - albeit with "sensibly adjusted" timescales signed off by top civil servants.

The move comes just days after the UK Government was criticised following reports that officials had been told to shelve no-deal planning with "immediate effect" as European leaders agreed to potentially delay the UK's exit until 31 October.

Since triggering Article 50 two years ago, some 16,000 civil servants have been moved to departments most likely to be impacted if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, and the move to put no-deal planning on the backburner led to a swift backlash from MPs.

But in her message to the civil service, the Prime Minister reveals that some planning will continue and makes it clear that senior staff in each department, as well as Britain's top civil servant Sir Mark Sedwill, will make the call on which parts of it can be dropped.

"On preparations specifically for leaving the EU without a deal, you will rightly be guided by the Cabinet Secretary and by your own Permanent Secretaries about continued planning," May writes.

"Necessary preparations for a no deal outcome must continue, though with sensibly adjusted timescales given the extension we have agreed."

The embattled Prime Minister, whose deal has been rejected by MPs three times, also uses the message to make clear that she will "do everything we can to get agreement through Parliament so that we can leave the EU as soon as possible", after EU leaders handed her an Article 50 extension that could run up until 31 October if no agreement is passed.

Theresa May has held a round of talks with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to try and thrash out a compromise deal, and said last week that she would continue to try and get a deal through Parliament by 22 May in a bid to avoid the UK having to take part in European Parliament elections.

She told officials in the latest message: "I agreed with fellow EU leaders last week to extend the Article 50 period, but while we have an extension until the end of October, that does not mean we should use it.

“So as a government we will continue to do everything we can to get agreement through Parliament so that we can leave the EU as soon as possible.

“That means continuing our talks with the Opposition and working to seek a way forward so we can get the support of Parliament for a deal on the basis of the Withdrawal Agreement."

The Prime Minister also uses the email to heap praise on the civil service, which has been a frequent target of criticism from Brexiteers since the 2016 vote.

May says: "I know that these preparations have presented a unique challenge to the civil service and I think it is important to say just how grateful I am for the professional and dedicated way you have carried out your work, particularly to those of you who have taken on new responsibilities to deliver Brexit programmes in the national interest."

The confirmation that Whitehall will continue its no-deal planning is likely to be welcomed by Eurosceptics, who last week rounded on the UK Government over an email, seen by Sky News, saying ministers had agreed to "wind down our no deal planning in a careful, considered and orderly way".

Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the European Research Group of Brexiteers, at the time accused the Government of carrying out the shutdown out of "sheer spite".

He added: "Very sad. Officials have worked exceptionally hard to deliver our preparedness and deserve better."

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