Boris Johnson has pledged to heal the divisions of Brexit, as he returned to Downing Street after securing a crushing General Election victory over Labour.
Speaking on the steps of No 10 after a string of Labour strongholds fell to the Tories, the Prime Minister said he had an “overwhelming mandate” to take Britain out of the EU by the end of January.
But at the same time he sought to reach out to Remainers, insisting his “One Nation” government would never ignore their feelings of “warmth and sympathy” towards the other nations of Europe.
“Now is the moment, precisely as we leave the EU, to let those natural feelings find renewed expression in building a new partnership,” he said.
“I frankly urge everyone on either side of what are, after three and a half years, increasingly arid argument, I urge everyone to find closure and to let the healing begin.”
With all 650 seats declared, the Conservatives had a majority of 80 – the party’s strongest election performance since Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
The Prime Minister is now expected to reintroduce his Brexit deal in the Commons next week following the Queen’s Speech and State Opening of Parliament on Thursday.
The result plunged Labour into turmoil, with Jeremy Corbyn announcing he would not take the party into the next general election after seeing a string of former strongholds fall to the Tories.
But he faced furious demands to quit immediately after he said he intended to lead the party through a “process of reflection” as it considered the way forward.
Meanwhile Mr Johnson was faced with the prospect of an almost immediate constitutional showdown as Nicola Sturgeon demanded the right to hold a fresh referendum on Scottish independence.
After the SNP took 48 of the 59 seats in Scotland, the First Minister said she would next week set out a “detailed democratic case” for a transfer of power to Holyrood to enable a referendum to be “put beyond legal challenge”.
The PM spoke to Ms Sturgeon on Friday evening, reiterating his “unwavering commitment to strengthening the union”, according to a Downing Street spokesman.
“The Prime Minister made clear how he remained opposed to a second independence referendum, standing with the majority of people in Scotland who do not want to return to division and uncertainty,” said the Number 10 spokesman.
A dramatic election night saw Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson stepping down after losing her Dunbartonshire East seat to the SNP, while DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds was ousted by Sinn Fein in North Belfast.
But the most striking aspect of the results was the collapse of Labour’s hitherto impregnable “red wall” with seats across the North and Midlands which had not voted Conservative in more than a century falling to the Tories.
It represented the party’s worst general election performance since 1935, with veteran left winger Dennis Skinner in Bolsover and Tony Blair’s old seat of Sedgefield among the casualties.
At an early morning victory rally in Westminster, Mr Johnson said he was “humbled” that voters who had never before voted Tory had chosen to put their trust in him.
He acknowledged that in order to retain their support the Conservative Party would have to change some of its priorities.
“Those people want change. We cannot, must not, must not, let them down. And in delivering change, we must change too,” he said.
Mr Corbyn, meanwhile, expressed “pride” in his party’s controversial left-wing manifesto, blaming their losses on Labour Leave voters turning to the Conservatives or the Brexit Party.
“This election was ultimately taken over by Brexit,” Mr Corbyn said.
“My whole strategy was to reach out beyond the Brexit divide to try and bring people together.”
He said that it would now be for the party’s ruling national executive to set the timetable for a leadership contest, some time in the early part of 2020.
“I am quite prepared, and I was elected to do so, to lead the party until that takes place,” Mr Corbyn said.
His comments infuriated some Labour MPs and defeated candidates who said he should go immediately.
Veteran MP Dame Margaret Hodge said Labour had become the “nasty party”, with anti-Semitism allowed to flourish, and that the result represented a rejection of the entire Corbyn “project”.
“People just didn’t trust the economics, the confetti of promises that was thrown at the public without any clear and honest way they were going to be paid for,” she told the BBC.
“Labour has become the nasty party. I am one of the victims of that with the anti-Semitism.”
With all 650 results declared, the Conservatives had 365 seats – a net gain of 67 compared to the state of the parties at the dissolution of Parliament in November.
Labour were on 203, a net loss of 42, the SNP on 48, a gain of 13, and the Liberal Democrats on 11, a loss of 10.
In a speech in Edinburgh, Ms Sturgeon warned Mr Johnson that he had no mandate to block a new independence referendum.
“It is not a decision for any Westminster Prime Minister – and certainly not for one who suffered a crushing defeat in Scotland last night,” she said.