It will be up to permanent secretaries, along with cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, to decide whether contingency planning for a potential no-deal Brexit should continue in the coming months, prime minister Theresa May has told civil servants.
In a message to all officials, days after it was reported emergency operational no-deal planning had been "stood down", May said planning for Britain leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement "must continue" – albeit with "sensibly adjusted" timescales.
"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 said.
May's message, seen by CSW's sister publication PoliticsHome, came after cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill wrote to civil servants last week confirming that Brexit preparations would go ahead during the six-month extension of the UK's EU membership.
Last week it was reported that civil servants had been told to shelve some contingency planning with "immediate effect" after European leaders agreed to delay Brexit 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.
May has now confirmed permanent secretaries will be allowed to decide how Brexit preparations within their departments should continue.
"Necessary preparations for a no deal outcome must continue, though with sensibly adjusted timescales given the extension we have agreed," May wrote.
The prime minister also used the message to heap praise on the civil service, which has been a frequent target of criticism from Brexiteers since the 2016 referendum on EU membership.
She said: "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."
Her comments echoed those of Sedwill, who in his messasge said he couldn't "speak too highly" of what civil servants involved in Brexit planning had achieved.
He continued: “This includes everything you have done to support the government in the negotiation of the withdrawal agreement and in the extensive preparations for our leaving the EU, including the possibility of exiting without a deal.”
“I find it hard to think – at a time of such national importance – of a better demonstration of the value of a professional civil service committed to our core values.”
In the latest message, May, whose Brexit deal has been rejected by MPs three times, pledged to "do everything we can to get agreement through parliament so that we can leave the EU as soon as possible".
She has held talks with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in a bid to thrash out a compromise, and said last week that she would continue to try and get a deal through parliament by 22 May in the hope of avoiding the UK having to take part in European Parliament elections.
May told officials: "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."