London: Outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron urged his successor Theresa May on Wednesday to keep Britain close to the European Union, even as she embarks on the monumental task of ending four decades of membership.
Cameron is stepping down after Britons rejected his entreaties and voted to leave the EU in a referendum last month, severely undermining European efforts to forge greater unity and creating economic uncertainty across the 28-nation bloc.
“My advice to my successor, who is a brilliant negotiator, is that we should try to be as close to the European Union as we can be for the benefits of trade, cooperation and of security," he told parliament in his last appearance before resigning.
“The Channel will not get any wider once we leave the European Union, and that is the relationship we should seek."
May, 59, must try to limit the damage to British trade and investment as she renegotiates the country’s ties with its 27 EU partners. She must also attempt to unite a divided ruling Conservative party and a fractured nation in which many, on the evidence of the vote, feel angry with the political elite and left behind by the forces of globalisation.
Despite the serious backdrop, there was an atmosphere of jocularity in parliament as Cameron traded humorous jabs with beleaguered opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. Other than one meeting this afternoon with Her Majesty the Queen, the diary for the rest of my day is remarkably light," Cameron said to laughter in a packed House of Commons.
He later appeared with his wife Samantha and their three children outside their 10 Downing Street residence to deliver his parting remarks to the nation after six years dominated by the Europe question and the aftermath of the global financial crisis.
“It’s not been an easy journey and of course we’ve not got every decision right," he said, “but I do believe that today our country is much stronger."
The 49-year-old then left for Buckingham Palace to present his resignation to the queen. May was due to pay her own visit to the monarch to be formally entrusted with the job, before entering 10 Downing Street as Britain’s second woman prime minister after Margaret Thatcher.
In parliament, Cameron said the government was working hard to ensure that an estimated 3 million EU citizens can stay in Britain, but this would depend on reciprocal rights for Britons in Europe.
He took the opportunity to trumpet his government’s achievements in generating one of the fastest growth rates among western economies, chopping the budget deficit, creating 2.5 million jobs and legalising gay marriage.
Yet his legacy will be overshadowed by his failed referendum gamble, which he had hoped would keep Britain at the heart of a reformed EU.
‘Our Angela Merkel’
May, who has been interior minister for six years, is seen by her supporters as a safe pair of hands to steer the country through the disruptive Brexit process.
“I think around the cabinet table yesterday the feeling was that we have our Angela Merkel," said Jeremy Hunt, health secretary in Cameron’s team which met for the last time on Tuesday.
“We have an incredibly tough, shrewd, determined and principled person to lead those negotiations for Britain," Hunt told Sky News television.
German Chancellor Merkel will be May’s most important counterpart on the continent as the process unfolds. Both women are renowned for their firmness, pragmatism and discipline.
The new British leader is expected to immediately start putting together a new cabinet, a complex political balancing act in which she will try to satisfy opposing camps in her party.
Before the referendum, May had campaigned for Britain to remain in the EU, albeit in a low-key fashion. Since the vote, she has repeatedly said that “Brexit means Brexit" and her backers say she is determined to make the exit a success.
“Of course Theresa is going to want to make sure she’s got a balanced ticket that represents the views of different parts of the party," cabinet minister Chris Grayling, who campaigned for Brexit and managed May’s leadership campaign, told BBC radio.
May has said she plans to set up a new government department to lead the process of quitting the EU which would be headed by someone who had campaigned on the Leave side.
“That’s very sensible. It will ensure confidence among those in the party who did campaign to leave that they have a champion who believes in what they campaigned for," Grayling said.
Financial markets, which had been extremely volatile since the referendum, reacted positively to news on Monday that May would become prime minister earlier than expected.
Stock markets traded within sight of their highest levels of the year as the prospect of stimulative economic policy across the developed world eased immediate concerns over the impact of the Brexit vote.
Economists predicted in a Reuters poll that the Bank of England would halve its main interest rate to 0.25% on Thursday in a pre-emptive strike to try to ward off a recession and reassure markets.
‘Reluctant to shift’
Despite pressure from other EU capitals to quickly start negotiating the terms of Britain’s exit, May has said she will not be rushed into it.
She is unlikely to trigger Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty - which will formally launch the process of separation and start the clock ticking on a two-year countdown to Britain’s actual departure - until next year.
She is expected to promote women ministers to several senior roles, and Cameron’s long-serving finance minister George Osborne could lose his job, according to media reports.
Vince Cable, an opposition Liberal Democrat politician who was the minister for business in a coalition government led by the Conservatives from 2010 to 2015, praised May’s determination but said she may face challenges in the role of prime minister, which has a much wider remit than her home affairs portfolio.
“There is a streak that we all saw which was to be really quite narrow in focus and reluctant to shift even when the facts seemed to be changing, and if that’s what happens when she’s prime minister we could find ourselves in difficulties," Cable told BBC television.
May could face more trouble from dissenting Conservatives than from the Labour Party, which is in meltdown.
After months of simmering discontent among Labour lawmakers with party leader Corbyn, the conflict exploded into the open after the referendum when the vast majority of the lawmakers rejected his leadership, accusing him of failing to campaign vigorously enough for a Remain vote.
Corbyn has clung to his job, citing support from the party grassroots members, and the 116-year-old party is now locked in a bitter power tussle that risks destroying it.
Former minister Angela Eagle launched a leadership bid against him on Monday, and on Wednesday fellow Labour lawmaker Owen Smith also threw his hat in the ring. Reuters