Brexit resignation: why British PM David Cameron had to go

Out of options. PA/Daniel Leal-Olivas

David Cameron has resigned as British Prime Minister, shortly after it was announced that his country had voted to leave the European Union. Emerging from Downing Street at around 8.30am, Cameron said that he would stay on for the time being but that a new leader would probably be in place by October.

While some polls had suggested the Leave camp might be victorious in the EU referendum, the polls in the immediate run up to election day suggested that the Remain side might well win a very tight vote. However, that was not the case. Turnout was higher than in a modern day general election, with approximately 72% of the electorate voting – 52% to leave the EU and 48% to remain.

These figures obscure the seismic impact of this decision, something which the financial markets immediately recognised, with almost 20% being wiped off the value of Sterling before 9am, with Sterling now worth a figure last seen in the mid-1980s.

With the decision now made, the question of leadership was on everyone’s lips. Cameron staked his position as Prime Minister on a Remain vote, something he repeatedly told the British people was in their best interests.

However, it seems the British people did not believe him or trust his judgement – and that’s a position no Prime Minister can survive. The question was not whether Cameron would continue as Prime Minister, but when he would resign and in what way.

On such a turbulent day, the question of who would replace him had not yet been fully considered. When Cameron approached the lecturn in Downing Street, the British public were expecting a speech that would ease minds and address worries in the financial markets – something which Bank of England Governor Mark Carney did soon afterwards. However, with the appearance of Samantha Cameron by the PM’s side, it was clear almost immediately that this was not a speech simply to steady the ship. Instead, Cameron began by praising the Remain campaign, his opponents and the British people, before inevitably moving on to his own future.

Cameron has taken an unusual path out of Downing Street. With so much uncertainty and instability in Britain, and with renewed and invigorated calls for a second Scottish referendum, he couldn’t simply resign and leave without damaging Britain’s financial situation further. An immediate departure would also have left the political establishment, particularly the Conservative Party, in chaos.

Instead, he followed the template laid down by his predecessor as Conservative Party leader, Michael Howard. Cameron appears set to remain as leader, and Prime Minister, for several months, to deal with immediate issues arising from the referendum result, and to oversee the election of his successor. With his voice breaking, Cameron confirmed this should be completed by the Conservative Party conference in October.

The coming months will be dominated by negotiations, arguments and uncertainty, regardless of the outcome for Britain and the Conservative Party. Whether Boris Johnson or Theresa May, or another as yet unknown candidate, becomes party leader, they will have an uphill battle to unite the Conservatives and fight off calls for another general election.