David Cameron has said that the government will not rush into negotiations to leave the European Union or be dictated to as to its terms, telling parliament the decision was “for Britain, and Britain alone, to take”.
In a defiant statement to the Commons in the wake of Thursday’s referendum vote to quit the EU, Cameron warned of difficult times ahead but argued that the UK economy was sufficiently robust to take any shocks.
He announced the establishment of a civil service advisory group, helmed by the cabinet minister Oliver Letwin, to look into the options for departure. But Cameron said that it would be up for his replacement as prime minister to decide on what happened.
Cameron also declined to rule out the idea of an early election, saying that would be up to whoever took over from him as prime minister. Boris Johnson, seen as the leading contender to do so, was not in the Commons for the statement. Michael Gove, the other main political figurehead in the official leave campaign, was there briefly.
The Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, asked Cameron: “With the promises of the leave campaign unravelling and no leadership being shown by the opposition, will you confirm that free movement of people and access to the single market are paramount to the economic stability of Britain and will you launch an investigation as to the whereabouts of the members for Uxbridge [Boris Johnson] and Surrey Heath [Michael Gove])?”
Cameron said: “The British people have voted to leave the European Union.” Cameron said. “It was not the decision I wanted, nor the outcome that I believe is best for the country I love. But there can be no doubt about the result.”
The aftermath of the referendum was “going to be difficult”, Cameron said. “We have already seen that there are going to be adjustments within our economy, complex constitutional issues, and a challenging new negotiation to undertake with Europe.
“But I am clear – and the cabinet agreed this morning – that the decision must be accepted and the process of implementing the decision in the best possible way must now begin.”
Referring to turbulence on the share and currency markets following Thursday’s vote, Cameron said there were some tricky times ahead.
“It is clear that markets are volatile, there are some companies considering their investments and we know this is going to be far from plain sailing,” he told MPs. “However, we should take confidence from the fact that Britain is ready to confront what the future holds for us from a position of strength.” The Treasury and Bank of England had put in place “robust contingency plans” to deal with this, he added.
For now, Cameron said, there would be no change in the status of EU nationals living in the UK, or British citizens based elsewhere in the bloc.
Cameron stressed that the UK would not trigger article 50, the formal two-year notice to quit the EU, until a new government was in place and it was known what route was intended.
“Before we do that we need to determine the kind of relationship we want with the EU. That is rightly something for the next prime minister and their cabinet to decide,” he told MPs, saying this was the messsage he would deliver to a European council meeting in Brussels on Tuesday. “This is our sovereign decision, and it will be for Britain, and Britain alone to take,” he said.
A report by constitutional lawyers said on Monday that any prime minister would need parliamentary approval to trigger article 50, which codifies in the Lisbon treaty the formal exit process from the EU.
Nick Barber, a fellow at Trinity College, Oxford, Tom Hickman, a barrister at Blackstone Chambers and reader at University College, London, and Jeff King, a senior law lecturer at UCL, declare that: “In our constitution, parliament gets to make this decision, not the prime minister. The prime minister is unable to issue a declaration under article 50 without having been first authorised to do so by an act of the United Kingdom parliament.
“Were he to attempt to do so before such a statute was passed, the declaration would be legally ineffective as a matter of domestic law and it would also fail to comply with the requirements of article 50 itself.”
Cameron said the advice from the new civil service Brexit advisory unit would be “the most complex and important task that the British civil service has undertaken in decades”.
He also condemned “despicable” graffiti aimed at EU nationals living in the UK and other actions against immigrants in the wake of the referendum result. “Let’s remember, these people have come here and made a wonderful contribution to our country,” he said.
The so-called Brexit unit will include civil servants from the Cabinet Office, Treasury, Foreign Office and other Whitehall departments.
Letwin, who has the generalist cabinet position of chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, will take what is described as a “facilitative” role, taking opinion from inside and outside government on how to manage the process.
The unit will “work on the issues that will need to be worked through in order to present options and advice for the new prime minister and new cabinet”, Cameron’s spokesman said, but will have no actual decision-making role.
Johnson was not at the cabinet meeting, as he not in the full cabinet, just the less formal political cabinet. Gove, the justice secretary, did attend. Ministers leaving the meeting said there was no suggestion of not pushing ahead immediately with plans to quit the EU.
Anna Soubry, the junior business minister, told reporters: “Obviously some of us are very sad about what’s happened, but there is an absolute acceptance ... we are where we are. We have this result, we’ve got to be true to it and we have to implement it.”
This article was written by Peter Walker, for theguardian.com on Monday 27th June 2016 17.16 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010