David Cameron has entertained parliament with a series of farewell quips in his last appearance as prime minister before making way for Theresa May to lead the monumental task of extricating Britain from the European Union.
“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,” Mr Cameron said to roars of laughter in a packed House of Commons.
He was due to present his resignation to the queen at Buckingham Palace at about 5:00pm local time (2:00am AEST).
Then Ms May will pay her own visit to the monarch to be formally entrusted with the job, before entering 10 Downing Street to become Britain’s second woman prime minister after Margaret Thatcher.
Mr Cameron stepped down after Britons rejected his entreaties and voted in a June 23 referendum to quit the EU, weakening the 28-nation bloc and creating huge economic uncertainty because of the likely damage to trade and investment.
Apart from the task of executing Brexit, Ms May must try to unite a divided party and a 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 hilarity in parliament as Mr Cameron traded humorous jabs with beleaguered opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
“I’m beginning to admire his tenacity. He is reminding me of the black knight in Monty Python’s Holy Grail,” said Mr Cameron, who departed to a standing ovation from his own and some Labour members of Parliament.
“He’s been kicked so many times but he says ‘keep going, it’s only a flesh wound’. I admire that.”
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’
Ms 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 Mr Cameron’s team, which met for the last time on Tuesday.
“We have an incredibly tough, shrewd, determined and principled person to lead those [Brexit] negotiations for Britain,” Mr Hunt told Sky News television.
German Chancellor Merkel will be Ms May’s most important counterpart on the continent as the Brexit 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, Ms 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.
Ms May 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 Mr Cameron’s long-serving Finance Minister George Osborne could lose his job, according to media reports.