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Prime Minister unveils 'Whitehall unit' to oversee EU exit plans

Neil Merrett Published 27 June 2016

New body overseen by MP Oliver Letwin expected to engage and impact all Whitehall and devolved organisations


Outgoing prime minister David Cameron has announced the formation of a 'Whitehall EU unit' that will involve and affect all departments and functions in government as it looks to set out a preferred model for how the UK functions outside of the union.

With last week's referendum opting to the UK to forgo its membership of the EU by 51%, preparations would now begin to negotiate an exit strategy with a new unit headed by West Dorset MP and Duchy of Lancaster Oliver Letwin.

Announcing the new body, the prime minister said the unit would bring together senior officials with policy experience from across the Cabinet Office, the Treasury, Foreign Office and business departments - reporting to the cabinet and future prime minister on a transitional strategy for the exit.

"Clearly this will be most complex and most important task that the British Civil Service has undertaken in decades. So the new unit will sit at the heart of government and be led by and staffed by the best and brightest from across our Civil Service," he said. "It will report to the whole of the cabinet on delivering the outcome of the referendum, advising on transitional issues and exploring objectively options for our future relationship with Europe and the rest of the world from outside the EU. And it will be responsible for ensuring that the new prime minister has the best possible advice from the moment of their arrival."

Cameron said that as part of his brief leading the unit, Letwin would be required to listen to views from across parliament with regard to exit strategies. The serving prime minister, who is expected to have stood down by October at the latest as a result of the referendum, said it was also vital to ensure the interests of all parts of the UK including its devolved administrations were met.

"So as we prepare for a new negotiation with the European Union, we will fully involve the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland governments," he said. "We will also consult Gibraltar, the Crown Dependencies, the Overseas Territories and all regional centres of power, including the London Assembly."

When asked if the recommendations set out by the EU unit and the decision whether to trigger the Article 50 clause would face a parliamentary vote, Cameron said the decision would need to be taken by his successor and a new cabinet.

Rather than a single white paper outlining the strategy, Cameron expected advice from the unit to be the basis for several papers that will be provided to the next prime minister with regard to impacts on various parts of British policy and functions.

However, the exact impact on existing government strategy, other than commitments to meet pledges outlined in the latest Queen's Speech, continue to be implemented.

After the announcement of the EU referendum decision last Friday, Civil Service head Jeremy Heywood vowed to meet the will of the British people by supporting the government and the "new Prime Minister when appointed", while trying to maintain existing services.

"I am confident that we will do this with our customary calm, integrity and commitment. And we will do so while ensuring other business continues as usual, serving the public with professionalism and pride," wrote Heywood.

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