Senior Conservatives Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are senior "Leave" figures
But they've been out of the public eye, leaving UKIP's Nigel Farage to become the de-facto leader
It’s been a week since the British public went to the polls and set in motion one of the most traumatic periods in the country’s recent history.
By Friday lunchtime in London, Prime Minister David Cameron had announced his intention to step down after the majority of voters opted to end British membership of the European Union.
More galling for the pro-EU Cameron was the fact that many of the most prominent “Brexiteers” had come from his own ruling Conservative Party, chief among them the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and Justice Minister, Michael Gove.
Johnson, widely tipped to replace Cameron, even thanked the British people for “doing our job for us” at the ballot box. “It’s about the right of the people of this country to settle their own destiny,” he proclaimed at a press conference in the wake of the final results. “They have decided that it is time to vote to take back control.”
But by the following Thursday, Johnson had ducked out of the race to be the next Prime Minister of the UK.
Having outlined the demands of the role to a room full of journalists in London, Johnson announced: “I have concluded that that person cannot be me.”
Gove had campaigned closely with Johnson for a Brexit, but said he had decided to run himself after concluding that Johnson “cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.”
He told reporters on Friday that Britain is “embarking on a new chapter and one that is in line with our best traditions,” adding that it can now “build a new, stronger and more positive relationship with our European neighbors based on free trade and friendly co-operation.”
But how that will happen remains to be seen.
As the financial markets reeled over the prospect of a Brexit and EU leaders led by Germany’s Angela Merkel warned Britain could not pick and choose what it wanted from EU membership, the “Leave” campaign’s victorious leaders vanished quicker than they’d materialized – as if the result had been such a surprise to them that they’d overlooked the need to actually have a plan.
The only person left on stage to bang the Brexit drum was the perennially anti-EU Nigel Farage. Much derided as a xenophobic and controversial figure in British politics, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) appeared to have the biggest smile of all.
Asked how he would explain to Americans why Britain voted the way it did, Farage asked: “Imagine if you had free movement of people from Mexico? How would you feel? You wouldn’t like it.
“What we’re doing in the UK … we’re re-asserting our democratic rights. And in terms of business and trade, we’ll go on trading,” he said during an interview with CNN Tuesday.
Happy to stick with the American theme, Farage even praised Presidential nominee Donald Trump – who also backed the leave vote – because he “dares to talk about the things that other people want to sweep under the carpet.
“But what Mr. Trump is doing in America is very different from what I’m trying to do. My problem in British politics is far greater than Donald Trump’s. We, literally, have lost our sovereignty, lost our borders, lost our ability to regulate.”
Farage seems happy to take the limelight in the absence of his fellow Brexiteers in the Conservative Party – even if that means taking the battle directly to his EU foes alone.
In an extraordinary performance in the European parliament in Brussels on Tuesday, Farage took aim at his European colleagues during an emergency session called to debate Brexit.
Amid jeering from across the chamber, Farage declared, “you’re not laughing now!”
“Isn’t it funny? When I came here 17 years ago and I said that I wanted to lead a campaign go get Britain out of the European Union, you all laughed at me.”
After more heckling from EU lawmakers, Farage, now in his element and with a British flag dangling nearby, questioned whether any of them had ever worked outside of politics.
“I know that virtually none of you have never done a proper job in your lives, or worked in business, or worked in trade, or indeed ever created a job. But listen, just listen.”
This arch-eurosceptic appears to be the one laughing now, but it will quickly ring hollow if the millions of people in Britain that backed his cause feel short-changed.