Cameron should have had a plan
Boris Johnson and other leaders of the Leave campaign have been denounced for not having a fully fledged plan for Brexit. But this wilfully misunderstands the purpose of a referendum. David Cameron called the vote, so it is hardly outrageous to suggest he should have made some preparations for what happened if he lost. That, after all, is the Government’s job – not to second-guess the outcome. It was never in the gift of Mr Johnson, Michael Gove et al to instruct Whitehall to make contingency plans, because the official government position was to stay in the EU.
Preparations have clearly been inadequate: it was wrong and short-sighted not to instruct the Civil Service to prepare for a Brexit vote. By definition an In/Out referendum can have one of two results and to ignore the possibility of a Leave victory was complacent in the extreme. Some arrangements were clearly in place, as testified by the swift and reassuring statements from Mark Carney, the Bank of England Governor, and George Osborne, the Chancellor, designed to calm the markets. Unfortunately, one of the reasons they were so spooked was the apocalyptic warnings made during the campaign by the Bank and the Treasury.
Had even the semblance of a plan been in place then there would be less uncertainty than is now being felt. Other EU countries appear to have prepared the ground for a Brexit better than we have done. The aftershock of last Thursday’s vote has been intensified by a sense of political drift. This needs to end if we are to emerge stronger and more united as a nation rather than weaker and more divided. This will need leadership, purpose and direction. Someone needs to get a grip – thankfully a start was made yesterday with the restoration of Cabinet government for the first time since the campaign began.
Furthermore, in the interests of stability, the Conservatives need to expedite the process to find a new leader to succeed David Cameron. The timetable proposed yesterday by the 1922 committee to install a new leader by September 2 fails the test of urgency in what are unprecedented circumstances. This needs to be done more quickly.
For now, Mr Cameron is in charge and he will begin the process of disengagement when he attends an emergency summit in Brussels today to discuss the consequences of Brexit, though he is not invited to a later meeting of the other 27 states. Judging by the exchanges in Parliament yesterday, the UK is likely to seek a deal to remain in the European single market, possibly through participation in the European Economic Area.
But how this can be reconciled with the objections that many Leavers have to unfettered EU immigration will be a source of considerable controversy in the months to come. It will need other EU countries to agree changes to the free movement of people provisions, as suggested on these pages by Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary.
The decision to establish a Civil Service unit to prepare for negotiations is a welcome, if belated, development. This should be overseen by an adhoc political committee that includes members of opposition parties and representatives of the devolved administrations. These are parlous times, which need to be governed by political arrangements that serve to unify not divide.
Arguably, the task now facing Whitehall is so great that the negotiations both to leave the EU and to forge a new trading relationship will require an entirely new Whitehall department to see them through to the end. It should not be entrusted to the Foreign Office or the Treasury where resistance to Brexit remains strong. A revamped Board of Trade also needs to begin rebuilding the expertise that has been lost in 40 years entrusting our negotiations to the EU.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party has continued to implode with the resignation of almost the entire shadow cabinet in protest at Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, or lack of it. Yet the coup that began on Sunday with the sacking of Hilary Benn as shadow foreign secretary has failed so far to shift Mr Corbyn, who intends to appeal to the membership for a fresh mandate that he will probably secure. He would then be re-elected but without any authority to control the Parliamentary party.
This would have constitutional implications if the Government were to fall as a result of Brexit. Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act the Prime Minister no longer has the power to seek a dissolution of parliament so the Queen would be expected to send for the Leader of the Opposition to see if a new government could be formed before triggering an election. But how could that be Mr Corbyn if he cannot command the support of his MPs? It is important that this moment is seen as an opportunity for Britain and not dismissed as something whose impact needs to be mitigated. Ministers who think that way should step aside for those who bring a positive approach to the task.
‘An In/Out vote can have one of two results and to ignore a Leave victory was complacent in the extreme’ ‘The Board of Trade needs to rebuild the expertise lost in 40 years entrusting our negotiations to the EU’