Boris Johnson tonight vowed Brexit will ‘unleash’ Britain but warned there will be more ‘bumps in the road’ – as the historic moment arrived.
In an address to the nation, the PM shunned triumphalism despite the UK finally leaving the EU when the clock struck 11pm after four years of turmoil.
Instead he appealed for unity – and insisted he recognised that not everyone was delighted with the path the country is taking. Mr Johnson said the EU had ‘admirable’ qualities but was going in a direction that ‘no longer suits’ the UK.
Speaking from Downing Street in the pre-recorded message – but notably without any patriotic backdrop – the premier said it was crucial to take advantage of reclaiming sovereignty to ‘level up’ the country, and improve life in left-behind areas.
‘For many people this is an astonishing moment of hope, a moment they thought would never come,’ he said.
‘And there are many of course who feel a sense of anxiety and loss.
‘Then of course there is a third group – perhaps the biggest – who had started to worry that the whole political wrangle would never come to an end.
‘I understand all those feelings, and our job as the government – my job – is to bring this country together now and take us forward.’
Mr Johnson voiced pride that he was able to ‘obey’ the verdict of the British people, but stressed the legal exit from the EU was ‘not an end but a beginning’.
‘This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act in our great national drama,’ he said.
No10 and other government buildings in Whitehall were lit up for the crucial occasion, and Nigel Farage is headlining the party in Parliament Square.
However, the official celebrations are deliberately low-key. Mr Johnson himself hosted a reception in Downing Street, drinking English sparkling wine with guests believed to include girlfriend Carrie and aides.
Meanwhile, Remainers have been showing their dismay across the UK, with angry demonstrations in Scotland.
While Britain is now legally out of the bloc, Brussels rules will still apply for another 11 months under ‘transition’ arrangements. The EU is gearing up for another major battle over future trade terms.
In a series of highly symbolic events earlier, the UK’s flag was removed at the headquarters of the European Council in Brussels.
And the EU flag was taken down at the British government’s building in the Belgian capital.
This morning Mr Johnson took his Cabinet to Sunderland, the first city to declare a majority for Leave in the 2016 referendum, in a symbol of his desire to reconnect with the north.
He told ministers the UK is starting a ‘new chapter’ and he would be ‘going full steam ahead to bring the nation together’, according to Downing Street.
He said the government would ‘begin immediately – providing better healthcare and education, tackling violent crime and homelessness and delivering great new infrastructure’.
He also laid down the gauntlet to the EU over trade negotiations, saying the UK will seek a loose ‘Canada-style’ deal.
He also made clear the government will look to strike deals with other countries outside the bloc at the same time.
A No10 spokesman said he told the Cabinet that ‘from tomorrow, the UK will also be free to begin trade negotiations with countries around the world – with the aim to have 80 per cent of our trade covered by FTAs within three years’.
In his address tonight, the PM stressed his belief that the referendum was a vote not just to leave the EU, but also for lasting change in neglected areas of the country.
He said: ‘It is a moment of real national renewal and change. This is the dawn of a new era in which we no longer accept that your life chances – your family’s life chances – should depend on which part of the country you grow up in.’
He made clear the government would focus on bringing about change for ordinary people, highlighting that ministers could now control immigration, do free trade deals, and ‘liberate our fishing industry’.
‘Now is the time to use those tools to unleash the full potential of this brilliant country and to make better the lives of everyone in every corner of our United Kingdom,’ he said.
The EU and UK will use the standstill period over the next 11 months to try to hammer out the terms of their future relationship.
The UK is adamant a comprehensive deal can be struck by the end of the year but the EU is deeply sceptical and has called for an extension – something Mr Johnson has categorically ruled out.
On Monday Mr Johnson will deliver a major speech setting out his approach to the Brexit talks as well as detailing his plans for a period of national renewal.
Sources said he would be ‘very frank’ about his aims for the negotiations with Brussels and his determination to allow Britain to ‘diverge’ from EU rules, even if that means the introduction of some trade barriers.
Mr Johnson will also warn that failure to strike a trade deal by the end of the year would lead to the introduction of tariffs on goods entering from the EU, such as German cars, French cheese and Italian wines.
One government source said: ‘Theresa May made two crucial mistakes – she wasn’t clear about what she wanted, and she wasn’t clear that she was prepared to leave with or without a deal.
‘We are not going to make those mistakes. We want a good free trade deal, without alignment, but we are prepared to leave without one if we have to.’
Mr Johnson will also reject calls for the EU to be given automatic rights to UK fishing grounds – and for the European Court of Justice to be the arbiter of disputes arising from a new trade deal.
Mr Johnson has ordered only low key events to mark Britain’s departure tonight.
Union flags were put up in The Mall and around Parliament Square and there was a countdown clock and light show in Downing Street.
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Source: Daily Mail