Boris Johnson, the highest-profile Brexiter, seems to have lost his conviction. His image as a leader who will reinvent Britain's role within the European Union or on the fringes of it has taken a blow.
He seemed befuddled in his short public appearance on the morning after the Brexit referendum vote was confirmed. In sheepish tones, he said there was "no rush" to trigger Article 50, the section of the EU's Lisbon Treaty that starts the clock on formal negotiations to leave the EU. You would have thought he would have been jubilant about the Brexit victory.
Michael Gove, the Conservative government's Justice Secretary and high-profile Brexit buccaneer, seemed perplexed, too. He said "nothing much would change in the short term" because of the June 23 vote. In truth, everything changed. The vote triggered a market plunge, a political avalanche that ended the career of Prime Minister David Cameron and threatened to do the same to Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, and a genuine existential crisis in both Britain and the EU, both of which face being broken apart.
The post-referendum performances of Mr. Johnson and Mr. Gove made it obvious that neither man believed voters would endorse Brexit. That perception seemed to be validated on Wednesday by no less than Sarah Vine, Mr. Gove's wife. Writing in the Daily Mail, she described the referendum's outcome as "terrifying."
Andrew Gimson, a London author who has written a biography of Mr. Johnson called Boris: The Rise of Boris Johnson (which is to be updated for the second time), agrees that the Brexit team leaders appear to have been caught flat-footed by the referendum outcome and the resignation of Mr. Cameron, and suddenly have a public-image problem. "I don't think Boris expected to win, nor did Gove," he said Wednesday in an interview.
The sense that Mr. Johnson was struggling to cope with what he had wrought intensified on Monday, when the lone column he wrote about the Brexiters' victory, which appeared in Monday's Telegraph, contained a few factual errors and was dismissed by some economists as hopelessly optimistic about Brexit's economic and political risks.
Worse, it made it abundantly clear that he and the other top Brexiters had no plan whatsoever, let alone a realistic plan, to forge Britain's new relationship with the EU and the rest of the world once Britain begins formal withdrawal negotiations from the EU.
During the campaign, the Brexiters rightfully accused the pro-EU camp of using "Project Fear" tactics to try to scare voters into rejecting Brexit. Today, the anti-Brexit side could justifiably label Mr. Johnson, Mr. Gove and Nigel Farage – the UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader and EU parliamentarian who has spent half his career campaigning for Brexit – as "Project Leaderless."
Even Mr. Farage wasn't expecting a win, evidently. Early on Friday morning, shortly after the first poll counts rolled in, the remain-in-the-EU side seemed comfortably ahead and Mr. Farage in effect gave a concession speech – only to reverse it, declare victory for Brexit a few hours later and launch into an anti-EU rampage that bordered on the hysterical. On Tuesday in the European Parliament, he bellowed that "virtually none of you have ever done a proper job in your lives."
Mr. Johnson's muddled response to the Brexit victory is bound to cause him problems unless he comes up with a strong plan in a hurry to redefine Britain's relationship with the EU. With Mr. Cameron out of the picture, the Conservative leadership race is under way and the party members might endorse any rival contender whose strategy to negotiate access to the EU market seems sound and achievable as EU leaders vow not to cut Britain any sweet deals.
Assuming Mr. Johnson becomes the new Conservative leader, Mr. Gimson thinks he will come up with a plan to prevent Brexit from inflicting long-lasting economic damage and preserve Britain's access to the vast EU market. The author said Mr. Johnson is a fast learner, quick on his feet and can be a clever negotiator. He is not even convinced that Mr. Johnson will yank Britain out of the EU. "He will try to steer a middle course and that inevitably will involve a fudge of some sort," Mr. Gimson said.
But Mr. Johnson, Mr. Gove and their Brexit allies are already running out of time. The EU is demanding evidence of a strategy, as are voters and politicians, no matter which side they endorsed in the referendum.