Oliver Letwin to head up civil service Brexit unit – as experts question contingency planning

Role of the civil service is to "make sure that we prepare for an incoming prime minister to take decisions", Number 10 says – as constitutional experts flag up a lack of contingency planning for a Brexit vote

A new unit made up of civil servants from the Cabinet Office, Treasury and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is being set up to lay the groundwork for a British exit from the European Union, Downing Street has announced.

On Monday morning, prime minister David Cameron chaired his first Cabinet meeting since announcing his intention to quit in the wake of the EU referendum, which saw 52% of voters back Britain's departure from the bloc.

Speaking after the Cabinet meeting, the prime minister's official spokesperson revealed that a new team had been set up in the Cabinet Office to begin work on the UK's exit.

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The cross-departmental team will report to Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin and will be asked to prepare the ground for whoever takes over when Cameron steps down in the autumn.

The spokesperson said: "The British people have voted to leave the European Union and that decision must now be delivered. 

"This government should make a start by doing some of the groundwork that will be necessary. The prime minister proposed the establishment of a new unit to carry out intensive civil service work on what will be needed to provide options and advice to a new prime minister and Cabinet."

She added: "This is going to be a complex task. What the civil service is there to do is make sure that we prepare for an incoming prime minister to take decisions."

Although the Treasury has worked with the Bank of England and the Financial Conduct Authority to extensively plan for the immediate economic impact of a Brexit vote, Downing Street on Monday reiterated that the civil service had not done separate contingency work for the wider process of withdrawal – something the new team will now lead on.

"Now we can start the work to put the UK in the best possible position for those negotiations on Britain's future relationship with the EU," she added.

"Neither compass nor chart"

Number 10's announcement comes as Whitehall adapts to the new reality of Britain's planned departure from the EU, a withdrawal that is likely to touch on all areas of government policy.

Former head of the civil service Lord Kerslake has said the organisation may need to rebuild capability in key departments, including the Foreign Office, Cabinet Office, the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, after years of job cuts. Meanwhile, former Foreign Office chief Sir Simon Fraser has said he believes the civil service faces a shortfall of staff with the right negotiating skills that could run into the “hundreds”.

"Departments were not routinely asked to contingency plan for this, so as far as I can see that is the position, which puts them in a very difficult place." Lord Hennessy

Speaking before the Downing Street statement, constitutional expert Lord Hennessy, who has spent years studying the ins-and-outs of Whitehall, told CSW that he believed a lack of departmental contingency planning for Brexit meant the UK had "neither compass nor chart to help us through this".

He said: "Departments were not routinely asked to contingency plan for this, so as far as I can see that is the position, which puts them in a very difficult place.

"Because the magnitude of this is extraordinary. In peacetime it is the greatest resetting of the dial in one go that we've ever been faced with. And the resetting of the dial involves all the government departments to some degree.

"Some intimately, and in a very protracted way. Not only have our political class got to rise to the level of events, so have the civil service – because they've never had to do anything like this before."

Robyn Munro, senior researcher at the Institute for Government think tank, said it was not certain that much contingency planning had been undertaken ahead of the referendum as the civil service had been “expressly forbidden” from laying the groundwork for an outcome that was contrary to formal government policy.

“I would have thought that planning for how we run things would have started today,” she told CSW on Friday afternoon. “It might take a long time.”

Munro said the government's preferred model for managing the UK’s divorce from the EU, and the relationship it would then seek with the bloc following an exit, would likely have to wait until the leadership campaigns of the prospective new Conservative leaders.

And she said ensuring the right staff were in place to run strong negotiations via the relevant government departments would be the main issue in the nearer term.

“The civil service is the smallest it’s been since the Second World War, there are fewer resources and less expertise,” Munro added. “The civil service should be thinking ‘what resources do we have; what do we need more of; and where do those people come from?"

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