Thursday’s vote created a powerful feeling at Westminster that if you broke it, you own it; that having recklessly incited voters to shatter the political consensus, it was for Brexiters to sweep up the mess. What became painfully obvious very quickly was that Boris barely knew where to find the dustpan.
A shellshocked morning after a press conference during which he failed to reveal any coherent plan for what came next was followed by a Saturday spent playing cricket with Princess Diana’s brother rather than visibly knuckling down. When he did choose to set out his thinking on the way forward, it was not in a speech to the nation but in his own highly lucrative column for Monday’s Daily Telegraph – and what a muddled column it was.
In it, Johnson basically argued for a magical world of unicorns and rainbows; a deal where Britons were still free to live and work abroad but could somehow have curbs on European nationals coming here, and where we could remain part of the single market with all its economic benefits but not bother with all the cumbersome red tape. It was as if the real Boris – the liberal Londoner who could preach the economic benefits of immigration to elderly Tory activists and get them eating out of his hand – was trying to reconcile himself with the Boris he had been forced to play for the last six months and failing dismally.
Remainers feared the “have your cake and eat it” plan would not survive five minutes of contact with the enemy. But it was the fury of leavers that really blew the doors off.
The leave campaign had indicated throughout that Brexit would mean leaving the single market and thus ending the free movement of people. Could it be that in his heart of hearts he never really wanted to leave Europe, and was now trying desperately to ensure that Britain did not?
To make matters worse, when angry Tory leavers started asking what the hell was going on, the response from the Boris camp was confusion. Boris, we were told, had been “tired” when he wrote the column, so maybe it wasn’t phrased right.