David Cameron has launched an impassioned defence of the civil service, after the UK Independence Party (UKIP) said talks on Britain's withdrawal from the European Union should not be left in the hands of "Europhile mandarins".
The prime minister on Monday addressed parliament for the first time since British voters dramatically backed leaving the EU, and after Downing Street confirmed that a new, cross-government unit had been set up to lead Whitehall's response to the referendum result.
The new unit will report to Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin and will be staffed by officials and policy experts from the Cabinet Office, the Treasury, the Foreign Office and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Oliver Letwin to head up civil service Brexit unit – as experts question contingency planning
Former civil service head Lord Kerslake: Brexit challenge should prompt rethink on job cuts
Brexit trade deals will need beefed-up Department for Business, Innovation & Skills – Bernard Jenkin
According to Number 10, the team will be asked to prepare the ground for whoever takes over when Cameron steps down in the autumn and "put the UK in the best possible position" for negotiations on Britain's new relationship with the EU.
Cameron told MPs on Monday afternoon that Brexit represented "the most complex and most important task that the British civil service has undertaken in decades", and said the new unit would sit "at the heart of government" and be "led by and staffed by the brightest and best from across our civil service".
"It will report to the whole of the cabinet on delivering the outcome of the referendum, advising on transitional issues and exploring objectively options for our future relationship with Europe and the rest of the world from outside the EU," he added. "And it will be responsible for ensuring that the new prime minister has the best possible advice from the moment of their arrival."
Cameron said the Cabinet Office-led team would "be working with every department because of course every department is affected by this decision", and confirmed that the Home Office would also play "an absolutely leading role" in its work to ensure "good levels of cooperation" with the EU on law enforcement border protection.
Seeking to address concerns that such a team could end up being too narrowly focused on the current government's position, Cameron confirmed that Letwin would take representations from MPs on "all sides of the House".
But the victorious Leave campaign has also been pushing to be involved in any official talks. Prominent Brexit campaigner Douglas Carswell – the UK Independence Party's sole MP – on Monday took aim at the impartiality of the civil service as he urged the prime minister to give Leave representatives a seat at the table.
Carswell (pictured) asked: "Now that withdrawal from the European Union is the policy of Her Majesty's Government, can the Prime Minister confirm that some of the architects of the vote Leave campaign – not just the Europhile mandarins – will be involved in the work of the new Cabinet Office unit?"
Hitting back, Cameron pointed out that the current government "includes many people who were prominent in both campaigns" – and angrily rejected claims that officials were biased in favour of the EU.
"Let me take issue with him about our civil servants," he said. "They are impartial, they are hard-working, they are the best of British. They do a very fine job and I'm sure they will help us deliver this incredibly important and difficult challenge."
The civil service's supposed pro-EU stance became a regular theme of the Leave campaign in the run-up to last week's vote.
At one point cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood was personally criticised by serving minister Priti Patel for guidance limiting the support officials could give to members of the Cabinet who opted to oppose the government's position of staying in the EU. Leave campaigners also took umbrage with Treasury analysis of the risks of Brexit, and with the decision to use taxpayer funds to distribute leaflets to UK households setting out the government's case for staying in the bloc.
Speaking last week, the Institute for Government's Julian McCrae said the civil service would have to work hard to demonstrate loyalty to any pro-Brexit administration that emerges once Cameron steps down in the autumn.
"Many of those on the Leave side have expressed suspicions about the role that the civil service has played" – Julian McCrae, Institute for Government
"There is no doubt that the civil service will support the new prime minister and their cabinet as fully as they have supported the incumbents," the IfG's deputy director said.
"But that does not mean things will be easy. Many of those on the Leave side have expressed suspicions about the role that the civil service has played.
"The civil service needs to start now in building up the skills it needs for the negotiations ahead. It will, quietly, make sure it has people in place who will have the trust of the government as it moves forward. And it will think carefully about the structures it needs to put in place to allow the negotiations to work."