What the PM should be saying
(What follows are entirely personal thoughts; they don’t reflect the views of my employer)
There is a complete power vacuum in the heart of Government this weekend. In the absence of any authoritative view on what happens next, absurd theories are growing, and gaining credence — the idea that there might be a second referendum, that it might be politically feasible for the referendum result itself simply to be ignored. There are angry, frightened people on both sides of the debate. Nobody is taking the responsibility for taking national leadership, and every hour that continues the reassertion of a semblance of control becomes more and more difficult.
The PM’s concession speech on Friday morning was vague and backward-looking. Fine. He’s entitled to a moment of navel-gazing. But he should have followed it up with something more meaningful — something that purported to set out a road map for the next few months.
What should he be saying? Absurdly, this is an attempt — from someone who knows next to nothing about the business of high politics — to set something out. Two obvious caveats — I haven’t attempted to capture the PM’s “voice”, and it naturally makes assumptions about the way that negotiations might (or should) be transacted which reflect my lack of knowledge and understanding of such things.
A final point before we get started. I am a Remain supporter. God knows I don’t want to be in this situation. If someone could give me a consequence-free way of somehow magicking the referendum result away I would grab it with both hands. But that doesn’t exist. So we have to make the best of what happens next.
“For those of us who dearly wanted the UK to remain in the European Union, the referendum result was bruising. The task of coming back together as a nation following an outcome which has so clearly polarised us will be difficult. But part of that process will be having a clear, ordered and well-managed route out of EU membership. That process starts today.
“The negotiation between the UK Government and the EU will be led by the Attorney General, Jeremy Wright, alongside the Advocate General for Scotland. Jeremy, with Lord Keen, will be supported by a team of experts drawn from across the civil service and the Diplomatic Corps, who will report to Sir Simon McDonald, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I have taken this decision to ensure that the ongoing leadership contest in the Conservative Party does not distract from the vital job of work that needs to be done between now and October to prepare us for detailed negotiations afterwards. I will invite the devolved institutions in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to participate in this process.
“Naturally, I expect that on taking office, my successor will seek to take a personal interest in negotiations.
“When representatives of all 28 EU members meet next week, we will invite discussion on the timetable for a British departure. We will not invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty — which commits to a withdrawal from the EU within two years — immediately for two very important reasons.
“The first reason is that Parliament must decide what model our withdrawal will take. We know that the majority in this country wants to leave, but what was not on the ballot paper was what our continued relationship with the EU will be. A decision on this is necessary before negotiations can properly begin and that decision cannot be rushed. I will be asking Parliament to review two options in particular. First, a negotiating position that argues for our remaining in the European Economic Area, so benefiting from the single market but accepting an element of freedom of movement. Second, a position that takes us out of the EEA entirely, requiring us to secure a separate and unique trade deal with EEA countries and the EU.
“The second reason is to ensure that both sides in the negotiations understand what needs to happen domestically and in Brussels to ensure that, when we do invoke Article 50, that invocation will be accompanied by a clear and unambiguous commitment to a date when we know Brexit will occur. Article 50 allows for a two-year period of negotiations, but we cannot risk that period passing and our having no lasting agreements in place. We cannot risk that deadline forcing us into hurried agreements which end up unravelling. Equally, we cannot risk negotiations continuing endlessly — and the very real chance that Brexit occurs without any meaningful deals on trade and other areas of co-operations having been concluded.
“Protracted and poorly-planned negotiations will lead to cobbled-together solutions which will work neither for us, nor for our friends in Europe. It’s in all of our interests to pause now, to reflect, and to consider what we have to do to get the job done. I hope that those eager for a shorter timetable understand the good faith and logic of this position.
“I, or my successor, will invoke Article 50 in October this year. To be absolutely, clear, in order to bring about this invocation, and to put in place the irrevocable process of leaving, we must be satisfied that Parliament has agreed what relationship we plan to pursue in our negotiations, that we agree with our EU partners what form those negotiations will take, and that we therefore have a clear and achievable date for “Brexit day” itself which will see our membership of the EU convert smoothly into a new transitional, or permanent, trade agreement with the EU and EEA.
“Parallel to this process, I will speak to the Speaker of the House of Commons, and the Lord Speaker, to discuss with them what arrangements we will need to put in place to allow our legislators to review our existing laws, and consider where, when and how European legislation that we have embedded in domestic law might be repealed, amended or retained. I want to be clear — there is some European law that we will wish to keep, as well as much that we may want to repeal. The resources of Parliament and of the civil service must be ranged to ensure that those decisions are made thoughtfully and in an ordered way. This is an unprecedented situation, and now we are here I will be speaking to the leaders of other parties to think about how Parliamentary time will be best used in the coming months and years to manage this process, while still making sure that the ordinary business of Government can continue.
“Before I finish, I want to say one last thing. The British public have spoken. The referendum may not have been binding in a legal sense but it was an unambiguous expression of the will of the majority of those who voted. There are many who feel aggrieved by this result but make no mistake, it will be honoured. There will be no second referendum and there will certainly be no back-pedalling on our commitment to negotiate Britain’s departure.”