David Cameron took a swipe 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 British 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 prime minister, 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 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.
“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.”
Mr Cameron outlined to MPs the changes to migrant benefits, economic regulation, red tape, and national sovereignty which he believes he secured in last Friday’s late night deal, and warned 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 she would vote to Remain.
Mr Cameron ended by saying: “I’m not standing for re-election. I have no other agenda than what is best for our country.”
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.
Downing St stressed that the Brexit process would begin “straightaway” if the UK voted to leave.
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