Johnson is the incarnation of a campaign that within hours of victory sought to absolve itself of accountability for the outcome. Brexiter Tory MPs ask with straight faces why they should be expected to describe Britain’s future relationship with the EU. For that they look instead in cowardly dudgeon to a lame duck prime minister who spent months arguing that the best model for a relationship with the EU is membership of it. But we should not be surprised that the Vote Leave crew have no new response to questions they refused to answer during the campaign, nor that they take no blame for turmoil they dismissed as scaremongering fiction when the remain side accurately foretold it. Arsonists do not fetch water.
The irresponsibility of the Johnsonites reflects also that peculiar cultural aspect of Conservative politics that treats even the gravest decision as a parlour game, a ritualised sport for rich and articulate dilettantes who are quick-witted and rhetorically adept enough to reconfigure their most selfish manoeuvres as acts of principle, and who face no material risk in the event that their gambles fail. Thus we have the paradox of a popular revolt against complacent elites, animated by resentment of mass migration, harnessed to the service of an Old Etonian who would gladly jettison stringent border controls on day one of Brexit negotiations.
And, though it pains me to say it of my own trade, the British media have been stupidly or wilfully complicit in this blinkered parochialisation of the European debate for decades, but most pronouncedly during the campaign. Routinely, the question of whether the country’s interests would be served by leaving the EU was treated as a minor technical detail of the more absorbing choreography in a hypothetical Tory leadership race.
When Angela Merkel said she wanted the UK to remain in the EU but warned that post-Brexit deals superior to the one already negotiated would be impossible, she flickered across the headlines for barely an afternoon and was then forgotten. By contrast, Steve Hilton made multiple front pages and haunted TV studios for days with weightless musings on the subject. The most powerful politician in Europe imparting essential data that voters needed to process in their decision-making was treated as a lesser figure than some California-based author who once spent a couple of years padding around Downing Street in his socks urging the prime minister to replace whole Whitehall departments with websites.