David Cameron took a veiled dig at Boris Johnson over the EU referendum as the two top Tories came up against one another in the House of Commons for the first time since the London Mayor declared his support for Brexit.
The Prime Minister used a statement to MPs to dismiss the idea – reportedly floated by Mr Johnson – that a Leave vote could be a prelude to securing a better deal in a second referendum.
And, in what seemed a lightly-veiled reference to the Mayor’s apparent ambition to succeed him as PM, Mr Cameron told the Commons that his own pledge to step down at the general election meant he had “no agenda” other than the interests of Britain.
Making clear that a Leave vote would be followed by withdrawal negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, Mr Cameron said: “Sadly, I’ve known a number of couples who have begun divorce proceedings, but I don’t know any who have begun divorce proceedings in order to renew their marriage vows.”
His comment was greeted by loud laughter from Labour MPs directed at Mr Johnson, whose own first marriage was dissolved in 1993.
Mr Johnson was one of the first backbench MPs to be called to ask Mr Cameron a question, to loud approval from Eurosceptic backbenchers, but opted not to use the opportunity to speak at length on his decisions to back Brexit.
Instead, the Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP simply asked Mr Cameron “to explain to the House and to the country in exactly what way this deal returns sovereignty over any field of law-making to these Houses of Parliament”.
Mr Cameron responded: “This deal brings back some welfare powers, it brings back some immigration powers, it brings back some bail-out powers, but more than that, because it carves us forever out of ever-closer union, it means that that ratchet of the European court taking power away from this country cannot happen in future.”
The Prime Minister told MPs: “I won’t dwell on the irony that some people who want to vote to leave apparently want to use a Leave vote to Remain. Such an approach also ignores more profound points about democracy, diplomacy and legality.
“This is a straight democratic decision, staying in or leaving and no Government can ignore that. Having a second negotiation followed by a second referendum is not on the ballot paper. For a Prime Minister to ignore the express will of the British people to leave the EU would not just be wrong, it’d be undemocratic.”
Appearing in Parliament for the first time since striking a late night deal to renegotiate the UK’s membership of the EU on Friday, Mr Cameron outlined to MPs the changes to migrant benefits, economic regulation, red tape and national sovereignty which he believes he has secured and warned that a vote to Leave would mean “risk, uncertainty and a leap in the dark”.
Jovial Labour MPs gleefully mocked the PM over splits on the Conservative side of the chamber, where many Eurosceptic MPs sat stony-faced to listen to their leader make the case for continued membership.
In a sign of the way the EU issue has divided Tory opinion, Mr Cameron was flanked on the Government frontbench by Leader of the Commons Chris Grayling, who is campaigning for Brexit, and Home Secretary Theresa May, who disappointed some supporters of Brexit when she declared that she would vote to Remain.
Mr Cameron ended his statement by saying: “I’m not standing for re-election. I have no other agenda than what is best for our country. I’m standing here telling you what I think.
“My responsibility as Prime Minister is to speak plainly about what I believe is right for our country and that’s what I will do every day for the next four months.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said it was “more than disappointing” that Mr Cameron’s renegotiation had “failed” to address the major challenges facing Europe, including dealing with climate change, making global businesses pay fair taxes and tackling terrorism.
The Labour leader said: “The reality is that this entire negotiation has not been about the challenges facing our continent, neither has it been about facing the issues facing the people of Britain.
“It’s been a theatrical sideshow about trying to appease, or failing to appease, half of the Prime Minister’s own Conservative party.”
Downing Street stressed that the Brexit process would begin “straightaway” if the UK voted to leave.
Asked about the Prime Minister’s comments about not having a wider agenda, a Downing Street source said: “He was just setting out the fact that he announced before the last general election that he was not going to stand for election again, he set out very clearly his focus here is on what is best for the country in his view.
“He was just spelling it out very clearly.”
The source added: “There are clearly differing views within the Conservative Party, within the Labour Party on this issue. The PM was just making the point from his point of view he is taking a decision on what he thinks is best for the country. There is no general election that he is thinking about.”
Asked whether the comment on marriage and divorce was a veiled reference to Mr Johnson, the source said: “It was a reference to some people, who have suggested that the British people could vote to leave the EU and that somehow you might ignore and turn your back on the decision of the British people and go forward and try to secure a second renegotiation.
“The Prime Minister’s view on that, and our manifesto made very clear, is that we will respect the outcome of the referendum come what may. If the British people vote to leave, we will take the appropriate steps and move towards Article 50 straight away.”
Anything else would be “not respecting the will of the British people”, the source said.
Following Mr Cameron’s statement, Employment Minister Priti Patel said: “EU courts and politicians will still be in charge of our borders, our courts and our economy. The deal is not legally binding and can be ripped up by EU judges after our vote.
“Even if it did come into force it would change just 1% of the EU Treaties.”
Arron Banks, the co-chairman of the Leave.EU campaign, said: “The Prime Minister promised British voters half a loaf, begged Brussels for a crust and brought home crumbs. It was absolutely tragic trying to watch him sell this dodgy deal in Parliament.”