The UK has now voted to leave the EU. David Cameron has resigned as Prime Minister. The pace of events has been rapid and the big question that many will be asking is “what happens now?”
It is clear that Cameron has a mandate to stay and “steady the ship”. This means that the PM has the authority to deal with any crisis and urgent big decisions. The UK will not be without a government.
But what government do we have? In resigning, Cameron effectively becomes a caretaker PM. UK Cabinet government works through a mixture of collective responsibility and informal prime ministerial power. Now, we will see a Cabinet of ministers many of whom may be in competition to lead their party; others may now be anticipating the end of their ministerial career.
Then there is the preparing for withdrawal. When it comes to how and when to start formal negotiations, the truth is that the process and timetable for leaving is not clear. Cameron has said it will occur after a new PM takes office in the Autumn. Both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have insisted that the withdrawal will take time. Meanwhile, EU statements have been pressing for Article 50 – the formal process for leaving – to be initiated as soon as possible. Even starting the process for leaving is going to be a negotiation.
Gove and Johnson signalled instructions to the civil service to start thinking about the exit process and preparing the negotiating ground. Civil servants are now free to lay the groundwork for such negotiations talking to their opposite numbers in other EU states.
The next EU Council meeting on the 28/29 June will be a key moment. Can the UK convince the rest of the EU not to press for action until a new government is in place? Clearly other EU states want speedy resolution and clarity. The discussions around that over the next week will be a foretaste of what is to come.
On top of all this, the government already had a large agenda of reform and deficit reduction. Since the referendum campaign got into full swing, many big decisions and announcements had been put off. Some – airport expansion in the Southeast for instance – will have to wait for a new PM. However, other pressures, such as finance and performance in the NHS, will be less easy to ignore.
Finally, and far from least, the events of the next few days and weeks will not just be down to Whitehall, Westminster and the EU. The polarised nature of the vote, particularly in Scotland and Northern Ireland, has already put the question of UK unity back on the table. It was for this reason Cameron noted how important it was to keep the devolved administrations closely involved in any negotiations. Nicola Sturgeon has already indicated she wants another referendum, though this itself requires legislation from Westminster. The government will have a constitutional crisis on its hands if it does not find consensus.
The government (perhaps even the nation) will be looking for some breathing space and the watchword will be stability. Whether it manages to find it is another matter.