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Row erupts as civil servants ordered to halt £4bn no-deal Brexit planning with 'immediate effect'

3 min read

Civil servants have been told to shelve preparations for a no-deal Brexit with "immediate effect" after departments spent more than £4bn preparing for a cliff-edge departure from the EU.

The decision to begin "winding down" the emergency preparations came after European leaders agreed to 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 left the EU without a deal.

In an email from a senior civil servant, obtained by Sky News, staff were thanked for their work but were told "in common with the rest of the Government, we have stood down our no-deal operational planning with immediate effect".

"[On Thursday] morning, at a meeting chaired by the Cabinet Secretary, we agreed that the objective is to ensure we wind down our no deal planning in a careful, considered and orderly way," they said.

It is believed the staff who were redeployed to prepare for no-deal will be returned to their original departments after the Easter break.

Labour MP Hilary Benn, who chairs the cross-party Commons Brexit Select Committee said the estimated £1.5bn cost of halting the preparations was a result of Mrs May's refusal to rule out a no-deal Brexit sooner.

He said: "It was important to plan for all contigencies, but this is the huge cost of the Prime Minister repeatedly saying: 'My deal or no deal' when she knew that leaving without a deal was not in the national interest. This is one example of how Brexit is proving to be very costly for our country."

But the decision also provoked fury among Tory Brexiteers who have repeatedly urged the Government to consider leaving the EU without a deal if Parliament failed to back one.

Steve Baker, deputy chairman of the European Research Group of eurosceptic Brexiteers, 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."

Meanwhile, Reigate MP Crispin Blunt warned the decision could lead to him supporting a vote of no confidence in the Government.

"This would be a confidence matter for me if true," he tweeted. "[The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee] on 12 March 2017 unanimously called this a dereliction of duty. No deal is not just a matter for UK unless PM has decided to revoke. That'd be a complete betrayal of 2016 referendum and 2017 general election."

The move to wrap up the operational planning came just hours after newly appointed Brexit minister James Cleverly tweeted he was "going to keep working on our no-deal preparations in case we have to leave without one".

A government spokesperson said: "As a responsbile government, we've been preparing for over two years to minimise any disruption in the event of no deal.

"In light of this week's developments, departments will make sensible decisions about the timing and pace at which some of this work is processing given that the date we leave the EU has changed, but we will absolutely continue to make all necessary preparations."

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