In a long-awaited key speech, the Foreign Secretary urged Leave and Remain supporters to put aside their differences and “unite about what we all believe in”.
Setting out a vision of a “liberal Brexit” leading to a country free of Brussels rules and regulations, but still co-operating closely with European partners, Boris Johnson said: “Brexit is about re-engaging this country with its global identity and all the energy that can flow from that.
“It’s not some great V-sign from the cliffs of Dover.” He said it would be a “disastrous mistake” to try to stop Brexit and “frustrate the will” of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU.
But Labour peer Lord Adonis branded Mr Johnson a “charlatan” and pro-Brussels Tory MP Anna Soubry said his speech would spread “deep despair”.
Mr Johnson’s vision for Britain’s future outside the EU was the first of a series of high-profile Brexit speeches by senior Cabinet ministers over the coming weeks.
“People voted Leave not because they were hostile to European culture and civilisation but because they wanted to take back control,” Mr Johnson said at the Policy Exchange think tank headquarters in Westminster.
“Brexit is not just the great liberal project of the age but a project that over time can unite this whole country. So let’s do it with confidence together.
“It is the expression of a legitimate and natural desire for self-government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Urging Remainers to acknowledge that Brexit would bring more cash for Britain’s public services and greater democratic accountability, he said: “We will stop paying huge sums to the EU every year and as the PM herself has said, this will leave us with more to spend on our domestic priorities, including, yes, the NHS.”
Mr Johnson also fired a broadside at Cabinet colleagues including Chancellor Philip Hammond, who argue for continuing close ties with Brussels after Brexit.
“We would be mad to go through this process of extrication from the EU and not to take advantage of the economic freedoms it will bring,” he said.
But even before his speech, senior Labour MP Yvette Cooper told BBC radio in an interview: “I don’t really see why we’re taking him seriously at all.”
He also faced a pro-Brussels demonstration from Lib Dem activists, whose headquarters are four floors below the Policy Exchange office, as he arrived.
After the speech, Lord Adonis dismissed the peace offer as “typical bluster” and called Mr Johnson’s supporters “a bunch of charlatans”.
And Ms Soubry said: “Far from reaching out, it will drive many to deeper despair.”
But Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg called the speech a “classic of Boris oratory” and Richard Tice, co-chairman of pressure group Leave Means Leave, said: “This is the positive tone the British public have been waiting for the Government to deliver.”