Graceful in defeat – David Cameron responds to the verdict of the EU Referendum
Eleven months after delivering the first outright Conservative General Election victory since 1992, David Cameron came to the Commons Dispatch Box as a lame duck Prime Minister, a caretaker who would remain in office only until his successor could be named. The Referendum vote to leave the EU had ended his career with brutal finality.
He was cheered by his MPs as he arrived in a packed Commons Chamber and he seemed remarkably good humoured. Moments before he rose, the newest MP, Rosena Allin-Khan, who had been elected to replace Labour’s Sadiq Khan, the new Mayor of London, had been introduced. With mass resignations from Labour’s Shadow Cabinet as the leadership crisis in the Opposition unfolded, he advised her to keep her phone on because she might be promoted by the end of the day.
Then he gave his response to the Referendum decision. ‘It was not the result that I wanted, or the outcome I believe is best for the country I love but there can be no doubt about the result. Of course I do not take back what is said about the risks; it is going to be difficult…’ He also promised that an upsurge in hate crime against migrants would be stamped out.
One of his key announcements was that he would not trigger the formal EU exit process – Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – and the timing of that decision and the nature of the future relationship Britain would seek with the EU were matters for his successor. He said he would take that message to the emergency European Council meeting that had been convened for the next day, to respond to the Brexit vote.
‘Tomorrow will also provide an opportunity to make the point that although Britain is leaving the European Union we must not turn our back on Europe or the rest of the world,’ he added.
For Labour, Jeremy Corbyn – accused of fighting a lacklustre referendum campaign – said his party had put forward a positive case for Remain and had convinced two thirds of its supporters. He said people in many communities felt disenfranchised and powerless because they had been failed, not by the EU, but by Tory governments.
He complained that the campaign had been marked by untruths and half-truths and added, in a pointed rebuke, that ‘the country will thank neither the Government benches in front of me nor the Opposition benches behind for indulging in internal factional manoeuvring…’ – an observation that provoked a blast of scorn from Tory and SNP MPs, and silence from the Labour benches.
With Scotland having voted to remain in the European Union, the SNP’s Westminster Leader, Angus Robertson, said the Scottish Government would seek to protect Scotland’s place. ‘We are a European nation and it really matters to us that we live in an outward-looking country, not a diminished little Britain.’
The Liberal Democrat Leader, Tim Farron, said he still passionately believed British interests were best served by being at the heart of Europe. A few moments later his predecessor, the former Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, said it could not be right that the Conservative Party members who would elect Mr Cameron’s replacement would, in effect, choose a new Government. Surely, he said, there should now be a General Election?
A series of Conservative Leave campaigners, the veteran Sir Bill Cash, the former Cabinet Minister, Owen Paterson, and others praised the Prime Minister for holding the referendum, a line also taken by UKIP’s sole MP, Douglas Carswell, who was heavily heckled as he warned that the task of implementing Brexit could not be left to ‘Europhile mandarins’ and called for prominent Leave campaigners to be involved – a comment which provoked a backbench shout of ‘Yeah Farage.’
This was the first of what will doubtless be scores of Commons statements on the Brexit process – they will become a fixture in Parliament for years to come.