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24 June 2016

Boris Johnson is trying to pretend that nothing bad has happened

His post-victory speech is an attempt to pivot away from Vote Leave's outlandish promises. 

By Stephen Bush

You broke it, you bought it. That was the overwhelming impression from a press conference arranged by Vote Leave, the cross-party campaign, which had more of the feeling of a wake than a victory party.

And well it might. Vote Leave won promising a £350m cash bounty every week that will not materialise, and indeed one that is dwarfed by the damage already done to pension funds and ISAs after the early costs of Brexit are counted. When the threat of 75 million Turks does not arrive, things could get ugly very quickly.

The least economically painful option – if the European Union could be persuaded not to make an example of Britain would be what I’ve dubbed “the Whitehall arrangement”, with Britain in the EEA and therefore the single market for the foreseeable future. That might forestall the exodus of much of Britain’s financial services sector and skilled manufacturing base (such as it is) to one of the nations of the European Union.  

You can see the outlines of a deal that might be acceptable to Britain’s centre-right, where the country essentially becomes Switzerland-at-sea, without the ability to control most European Union diktats but opt-outs for financial services.

But the political cost of effectively taking Britain out of the European Union on a lie and then delivering neither a reduction in immigration or a cash bounty for public services might be tricky.

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Or would it? History, as Julian Barnes once wrote “is like an onion sandwich: it repeats”. David Cameron hoped to be Harold Wilson Mk 2: win a referendum to keep Britain in the European Union and then waltz into the sunset. Instead, he is Anthony Eden Mk 2: an old Etonian increases both votes and seats after serving a full parliamentary term, and year later his premiership is broken by a foreign policy disaster that changes the course of British policy for decades.

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After Eden came Harold Macmillan, another Etonian who went onto to study Classics at Oxford. As Anthony Sampson,  Macmillan’s biographer, wrote, he assumed the premiership after creating the false impression that Suez “had been a kind of victory, and that nothing much had happened”.

That was very much the impression that Johnson – an Etonian who studied Classics at Oxford – tried to give off in his speech today.  If he pulls it off, he could be the agent of a Tory revival – or, like Cameron, he could be broken by his failure to be as good a Prime Minister with the first name Harold.