David Cameron told a packed House of Commons that Britain’s decision to quit the EU was final, promising that work would begin immediately on preparing negotiations for exit.
In a warmly received statement to MPs on Monday, Mr Cameron said there could be “no doubt about the result”, which has ended his own premiership as well as taking the country out of the EU. “The decision must be accepted and the process of implementing the decision in the best way possible must now begin,” he said, as he prepares to brief EU leaders on the Brexit vote at a summit in Brussels on Tuesday.
Mr Cameron also condemned the incidents of racism that have been reported since the referendum, which was dominated by immigration, and urged all sides to reject a “Little Britain” approach as the Brexit talks develop. “I believe we should hold fast to a vision of Britain that wants to be respected abroad, tolerant at home, engaged in the world and working with our international partners,” he said.
The prime minister is setting up a Brexit unit in Whitehall, comprising officials from the Treasury, Foreign Office, business department and Cabinet Office, to begin preparations for exit talks, led by his policy chief Oliver Letwin. “This will be the most complex and most important task the British civil service has undertaken in decades,” he said. “The new unit will sit at the heart of government and be led by and staffed by the brightest and best.”
Mr Cameron confirmed he would not activate formal EU exit talks at this stage, saying it would be up to his successor as prime minister to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty. European leaders are impatient to start the countdown to Britain’s exit but nothing will happen at least until the autumn; Mr Cameron’s successor will be named by September 2.
Even then, pro-Brexit ministers such as Chris Grayling, leader of the Commons, want to hold informal talks with other EU states before activating Article 50. Mr Grayling does not expects a final divorce until late 2019. But EU leaders will make it clear to Mr Cameron that there will no talks of any kind until Britain formally notifies other member states that it intends to leave.
Angus Robertson, leader of the Scottish National party’s group at Westminster, said his country could hold a second independence referendum to safeguard its place in the EU. “We are a European country and we will stay a European country,” he said.
Ken Clarke, the pro-European former Conservative chancellor, urged the Remain majority in the Commons to use their votes to minimise the damage he believes will be inflicted by the Leave vote.
Mr Cameron said while the result had to be respected, MPs would use their judgment. But he said it was vital that the final shape of Brexit would have to involve “the best possible access to the single market”.
Nick Clegg, former deputy prime minister in the Lib-Con coalition, said whoever was chosen as Conservative leader should hold a general election to secure a new mandate. But the prime minister said the coalition had enacted a five-year fixed-term parliament act and that whether to hold a new election would be a matter for the next prime minister to decide.
Mr Cameron will be neutral in the leadership contest and will not vote for his successor. He will remain a backbench MP.
The prime minister delivered a good-natured performance in his first Commons appearance since announcing his resignation last Friday, cracking jokes at the expense of Jeremy Corbyn, the embattled Labour leader. “And I thought I was having a bad day,” he said, referring to defections from the Labour shadow cabinet.
He suggested to the newly elected Labour MP for Tooting, Rosena Allin-Khan, that she “kept her mobile on” in case Mr Corbyn called.
The leaders of the Leave campaign were hard to spot. Boris Johnson was not present in the chamber, although he had been seen at Westminster beforehand. Michael Gove, justice secretary, stood briefly behind the speaker’s chair.