Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

U.K. Faces Shortage of Negotiators for Brexit Talks, Letwin Says

  • Minister says government is flexible on salaries for experts
  • Letwin says Article 50 can be invoked without parliament vote

The U.K. government faces a shortage of experts to negotiate the terms of the country’s exit from the European Union, according to Oliver Letwin, the minister in charge of preparing for talks with the trading bloc.

“We absolutely definitely will have to bring in a significant number of people from outside who have relevant expertise that we don’t have on the inside,” Letwin told U.K. lawmakers on Tuesday. “I’ve given one example, the trade negotiators. But actually there will be many others."

After British voters chose to sever the country from the EU in a June 23 referendum that rocked markets and plunged the main political parties into turmoil, Prime Minister David Cameron put Letwin in charge of a unit of civil servants tasked with laying the groundwork for exit talks. The group is assessing how much expertise exists in the civil service, given that trade talks have long been the remit of the EU, Letwin said.

“We clearly need a new cadre of highly skilled, highly experienced trade negotiators,” he said. “Preparations are now under way to identify how best to recruit those and how best to use those who are experienced to train up people,” he said, adding that the government is flexible on salaries.

Giving evidence to Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Letwin said the U.K.’s departure from the EU can be triggered by the prime minister without a parliamentary vote. A London law firm, Mishcon de Reya, has said it’s representing a group of clients threatening legal action against the government if it tries to initiate the exit process without consulting Parliament.

‘Prerogative’

"The government lawyers’ view is that it clearly is a prerogative power, and no doubt this will be heard in court," Letwin said.

Cameron’s position is that his successor should decide the process, his spokeswoman Helen Bower said when asked about the Mishcon announcement. “Parliament will clearly have a role making sure we find the best way forward,” she said. Cameron announced his resignation after the vote.

Crispin Blunt, a ruling Conservative Party member who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, accused Cameron of “dereliction of duty” by not preparing a contingency plan in case of a vote to leave the EU.

Letwin responded that any preparation would have been rendered obsolete by Cameron’s decision to step down because the new government would be responsible for the direction of talks. His team’s role is to lay the groundwork and it wouldn’t be making any recommendations to the new prime minister on how to proceed, he said.

“Actually it’s only the PM of the day that is doing that job and the cabinet that they have that can make the decision,” Letwin said. “How you decide to go about the process of negotiating your exit is a very important series of decisions in itself, and can only be taken by the incumbent at the time.”

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