Key: Brits 'genuinely don't know' post-Brexit future

John Key in the UK earlier this year (Reuters)
John Key in the UK earlier this year (Reuters)

Meeting David Cameron this week wasn't a waste of time according to Prime Minister John Key, even if his British counterpart only has one full day left in the job.

It was announced on Tuesday morning (NZ time) Theresa May will be the country's Prime Minister from Thursday.

Mr Key, speaking to Paul Henry from London, said it's been "a sort of momentous and rather dramatic day" for Mr Cameron, who's stepping down after finding himself on the wrong side of the Brexit vote.

He's likely to be the last world leader to speak to Mr Cameron at Downing Street, where the Camerons are busy packing up their stuff. The pair reflected on Mr Cameron's six years in charge, Helen Clark's bid for the United Nations' top job and post-Brexit Britain.

"There's no doubt they want to have a solid relationship with New Zealand and a free trade agreement," said Mr Key.

"In a technical sense while they're a member of the EU - which happens until essentially they complete the divorce proceedings - they can't technically negotiate an FTA with New Zealand. That's a bit semantic, but it's the way it technically works."

Mr Key's trip has seen him in France, and he's about to leave for Italy.

"In a post-Brexit environment where the UK is no longer around the table, New Zealand will need stronger relationships with the major players in Europe - that includes Italy and France."

As for meeting with Ms May, Mr Key says it's best to leave that for another day.

"While we could try and come back [after visiting Italy], I don't think that would achieve a lot yet. I had a really good meeting with her last time I was here, and she'll have a lot on her mind.

"Her first port of call really has to be coming up with what she thinks, in her own mind, success on this Brexit environment would entail. I think we'll have the opportunity later in the year."

Despite chatting with Mr Cameron, Mr Key says the UK's future relationship with the continent remains unclear.

"What has come through everywhere is that people had prepared for the referendum alright; they just had no real sense of what a post-Brexit situation looks like. There are a huge range of options that could occur, but they're all very unknown.

"They talk in terms of 'soft Brexit' or 'hard Brexit' or potentially going cold turkey and not really part of Europe at all; right through to where it's a different structure but they're more entwined in Europe. I think people genuinely just don't know."

Tomorrow he'll fly to the south of Europe for his first meeting with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Coincidentally, his days as Prime Minister might also be numbered.

"Prime Minister Renzi actually has his own referendum in October, which he's also said he'll resign if he doesn't succeed in," said Mr Key.

Italy's referendum concerns the structure of Parliament - the question is 66 words long, just a tad more complex than whether to leave the European Union, or stay.

Mr Key also spoke to Mr Cameron on Ms Clark's bid to become UN Secretary-General.

He said while the permanent five members of the UN Security Council - which have veto power over any candidate - never tell, he got a favourable impression on the former New Zealand Prime Minister's chances of getting the British vote.

"The P5 never say who they're going to vote for, but what is clear I think is that they have a lot of respect for Helen Clark. There's nothing that rules her out, but by definition the permanent five just never say who they're going to support."

The vote on the next Secretary-General takes place later this year. She has 11 confirmed opponents so far. In New York on Wednesday (NZ time), Ms Clark will take part in a televised global town hall meeting, where 10 of the 12 candidates will be taking questions from the public for the first time.