A visibly emotional prime minister, who had campaigned hard but unsuccessfully to keep Britain in the EU, emerged into Downing Street just after 8am to announce his departure, accompanied by his wife, Samantha.
“I was absolutely clear about my belief that Britain is stronger, safer and better off inside the EU. I made clear the referendum was about this, and this alone, not the future of any single politician, including myself.
“But the British people made a different decision to take a different path. As such I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction,” Cameron said.
Cameron had called the referendum as a bold political gamble to silence the Eurosceptics in his own party and settle the issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe for a generation. But the public rejected his pleas to remain in the EU, bringing his six-year premiership to an end little more than a year after he won a surprise majority at last year’s general election.
Many in his party also see it as the end of the decade-long modernising “Cameroon” project of renewing the Conservative party, which began when he won the party’s leadership in 2005.
The Tories will now embark on a leadership contest, overseen by the party’s backbench 1922 committee, with Boris Johnson as the favourite to succeed him. MPs will choose a shortlist of two names, at least one of whom will almost certainly be a pro-Brexit figure. The final decision will then be taken by a vote among the party’s grassroots members.
Cameron had not expected to be defeated in the referendum vote, only to realise in the small hours that the result had gone in favour of the leave campaign. He had planned to launch a “life chances strategy” on Friday, but instead found himself facing the media in Downing Street shortly after 8am.
Boris Johnson, the most prominent public face of the Vote Leave campaign, gave a sober victory speech, stressing that there was “no need for haste” in extricating Britain from the EU, but “in the end this decision is about the people, the right of people in this country to settle their own destiny”.
The former mayor of London declined to speak about his leadership ambitions at the event, and instead sent a message to younger voters, who tended to back continued EU membership, saying: “We cannot turn our backs on Europe; we are part of Europe, our children and our grandchildren will continue to have a wonderful future as Europeans.”
The justice secretary, Michael Gove, who backed Brexit despite his close political and personal friendship with Cameron, stood sombrely alongside Johnson, and paid tribute to the prime minister. He said Cameron had “led this country with courage, dignity and grace” and that “he deserves to be remembered as a great prime minister”.
Gove, who is now expected to play a key role in negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU, said he believed all the constituent parts of the UK, and representatives from different political traditions, should be involved in the talks.
Ukip leader Nigel Farage, for whom the Brexit vote was the culmination of a decades-long battle, said 23 June should be known as “independence day”, and declared a bank holiday. He said the British people had achieved a revolution, “without a single bullet being fired”.
Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon and London mayor Sadiq Khan both said they believed it was imperative that Britain retain its access to the EU single market – and that they should have a seat round the negotiating table.
Johnson has not yet made clear whether he intends to stand for the leadership; but his popularity with the Tory membership has rocketed since he declared his backing for the Brexit cause.
Pro-remain backbenchers, some of whom said they would have liked Cameron to remain in place for longer to oversee negotiations with the other 27 EU member-states, are seeking a “stop Boris” candidate.
Energy secretary Amber Rudd, who tore into Johnson in a televised campaign debate as “the life and soul of the party”, but “not the man you want to drive you home at the end of the evening”, is considering throwing her hat into the ring.
The home secretary, Theresa May, who backed Cameron’s cause but made few public interventions in the referendum campaign, is also seen as a strong contender.
Pro-EU backbencher Heidi Allen said May’s response to the Hillsborough inquiry verdicts showed a different side of her. “I saw tears in her eyes: she’s not just the hard-hearted home secretary.”
Politicians on both sides of the House of Commons were shellshocked by the public’s decision, which many saw as a rejection of the entire political establishment – and which most pollsters had failed to predict.
It followed a bitter and divisive referendum campaign, in which both Farage and the official Vote Leave campaign were criticised for playing on the public’s fears about immigration.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also came under severe pressure after the poll. He is likely to face a vote of no confidence from his parliamentary party next week, after two Labour MPs – Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey – tabled a motion calling for a secret ballot.
In an email to the party’s supporters last night, Corbyn said: “Ours is the only party that can meet the challenge we now face. Labour is best placed to reunite the country. We can do so because we didn’t engage in Project Fear, and because we share people’s dissatisfaction with the status quo.”
But some backbenchers were infuriated by what they saw as his lacklustre approach to the campaign.
Caroline Flint, Chris Leslie, Stephen Kinnock and Angela Smith had all publicly backed the vote of no confidence last night, but Corbyn’s close ally John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, said: “At a time of such economic uncertainty, with the Tory party split clean down the middle, Labour members and voters will not forgive us if we descend into infighting and introspection only a year after Jeremy Corbyn won his landslide victory as our leader.
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