Theresa May pledges Brexit department – as Boris Johnson withdrawal boosts her chances of being next PM

Written by Matt Foster on 30 June 2016 in News
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Home secretary launches leadership bid with promise to set up new department to negotiate Britain's exit from the European Union – and rules out general election before 2020

Home secretary Theresa May, the current favourite to be the next leader of the Conservative party, has vowed to create a dedicated government department to lead the civil service's work on untangling Britain from the European Union – as her closest rival, Boris Johnson, dramatically pulled out of the race to lead the Tories.

In the wake of last week's historic referendum result, which saw British voters back an exit from the EU by 52%, prime minister David Cameron announced his intention to step down by the autumn, triggering a hunt for his successor as Tory leader.

May, who played a low-key role in the campaign to keep Britain in the EU, launched her leadership campaign on Thursday with a promise to abide by the result, saying: "Brexit means Brexit".


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"The campaign was fought, the vote was held, turnout was high and the public gave their verdict," May said. "There must be no attempts to remain inside the EU, no attempts to rejoin it through the back door and no second referendum. The country voted to leave the European union and it is the duty of government and parliament to make sure we do just that."

May's speech came after justice secretary Michael Gove made a shock announcement that he had withdrawn his support for former London mayor Boris Johnson in favour of his own leadership bid.

Johnson used his speech on Thursday, which had been expected to act as the launchpad for his leadership bid, to instead confirm that he would not be running for the Tory top job.

"This is our chance to think globally again, to lift our eyes to the horizon and to bring our unique British voice and values, powerful, humane, progressive to the great global forums without being elbowed aside by a supranational body," Johnson said.

"And instead of being afflicted by it, let us seize this chance and make this our moment to stand tall in the world. That is the agenda for the next prime minister of this country. But I must tell you, my friends, you who have waited faithfully for the punchline of this speech, that having consulted colleagues and in view of the circumstances in parliament I have concluded that person cannot be me.

He added: "My role will be to give every possible support to the next Conservative administration to make sure that we properly fulfil the mandate of the people, that was delivered at the referendum and to champion the agenda I believe in."

"Nobody should fool themselves that this process will be brief or straightforward"

Johnson's shock withdrawal significantly increases the chance of May – home secretary since 2010 and already the bookies' favourite – becoming the next prime minister. That means her campaign pledges, as well as those of Gove, are likely to be closely watched by those in government tasked with preparing for Britain's withdrawal from the EU.

Significantly for the civil service, May said the process of withdrawing from the EU was likely to be so complex that it would require its own government department, which she said would be led by a Cabinet minister who had backed Brexit.

"Nobody should fool themselves that this process will be brief or straightforward," she said.

"Regardless of the time it takes to negotiate the initial deal it is going to take a period lasting several years to disentangle our laws, rules and processes from the Brussels machinery.

"That means it is going to require significant expertise and a consistent approach. I will therefore create a new government department responsible for conducting Britain's negotiation with the EU and for supporting the rest of Whitehall in its European work. That department will be led by a senior secretary of state and I will make sure the position is taken by a member of parliament who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU."

May also ruled out holding an election before 2020, and ditched current chancellor George Osborne's plan for a emergency budget in the autumn, saying instead that there should be "a normal autumn statement held in the normal way at the normal time".

"That department will be led by a senior secretary of state and I will make sure the position is taken by a member of parliament who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU" – Theresa May

She also signalled a softening of the government's position on public spending cuts, saying that while it was "vital that the government continues with its intention to reduce public spending", the government should no longer seek to run a £10bn surplus by 2020.

"If before 2020 there is a choice between further spending cuts, more borrowing and tax rises, the priority must be to avoid tax increases since they would disrupt consumption, employment and investment," she said.

May also said she would not seek to immediately invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which triggers two years of formal talks with the EU on the terms of Britain's exit. Instead, the home secretary said she would prefer to wait until the UK's negotiating position was "agreed and clear", meaning Article 50 would not be invoked "before the end of this year".

Turnbull: Letwin "completely unsuitable" for Brexit job

May's call for a special Brexit department comes after Cameron announced that Olly Robbins, currently the second permanent secretary in May's department, had been handed the job of leading a dedicated team inside the Cabinet Office to lay the groundwork for Britain's withdrawal.

Robbins, widely regarded as one of the rising stars of the senior civil service, will move to the new unit as its permanent secretary on 4 July. He will also have responsibility for the European and Global Issues Secretariat, previously led by incoming Treasury perm sec Tom Scholar.

The Brexit unit, made up of civil servants from the Cabinet Office, Treasury and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, will report to Cabinet Office minister Oliver Letwin, who has played a key behind-the-scenes rule since the formation of the coalition government in 2010.

But Cameron's decision to put Letwin in political charge of the new unit was criticised this week by former cabinet secretary Lord Turnbull, who said the minister was "completely unsuitable" to carry out the task because of his proximity to Number 10.

"Oliver Letwin has spent the last six years as a kind of consigliere to the prime minister; he has been absolutely at the heart of Number 10" – former cabinet secretary Lord Turnbull

"We talk about bringing together the brightest and the best, but it would have to be a pretty high‑powered group to start scoping what it is that needs to be addressed and, secondly, a process by which it is addressed," Lord Turnbull told the Treasury committee.

"For the moment, it is under the supervision of the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Oliver Letwin, who in my view is completely unsuitable to do that job in the longer term. He has spent the last six years as a kind of consigliere to the prime minister; he has been absolutely at the heart of Number 10. That is not the profile that is needed for carrying this work forward."

However, Turnbull – who led the Treasury and the Cabinet Office during his time in government – said it was right to locate the team in the Cabinet Office because of its traditional coordinating role, and cautioned against creating a separate Brexit department.

"I do not think it should be a separate department; in the Cabinet Office is probably the right place for it, with a minister who does not have any other ministerial responsibilities," Turnbull said. "In that sense, we are on the right lines."

The respected Institute for Government think tank this week urged more detail on how the Cabinet Office unit, which Cameron has said will sit "at the heart of government" and be "led by and staffed by the brightest and best from across our civil service", will carry out its complex task of preparing withdrawal options for the new prime minister.

While the IfG's programme director Hannah White said the unit's civil service head Robbins had "relevant experience, having worked in Number 10 and the Home Office", she pointed out that government had given "no further detail of how this new unit will be run, the expertise it will draw from, or how it will coordinate Whitehall's Brexit efforts".

Correction 1/7: An earlier version of this story said May had launched her leadership bid on Monday, not Thursday. Apologies for the oversight – Matt

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Matt Foster
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Matt Foster is deputy editor of Civil Service World. She tweets as @CSWDepEd

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