Boris Johnson spoke for a significant part of the country when, accepting victory in the Conservative party leadership contest on Tuesday, he declared: “There may be people here who wonder quite what they have done.”
Mr Johnson, who secured two-thirds of the votes cast by Tory activists, will on Wednesday walk into Downing Street with a mission to take Britain out of the EU, unite a country scarred by Brexit and save his party from electoral oblivion.
A short film before the official coronation at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London contained a roll call of former Conservative prime ministers — Churchill, Macmillan, Thatcher — as if to remind Mr Johnson of the responsibility he is taking on. “Fasten your seat belts,” muttered one Tory MP.
Mr Johnson’s supporters said his overwhelming victory over foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt in the leadership contest — he won the backing of more than half of Tory MPs and a solid majority of party activists — provided him with the mandate to govern.
But as one cabinet minister said: “It doesn’t change the fundamental facts. We have barely got a Commons majority.”
Within months Mr Johnson is likely to have to face the voters in an election: his political honeymoon will probably be measured in hours.
“Do you feel daunted?” he asked his audience, citing a Financial Times article suggesting that he faced the most daunting set of political circumstances of any British prime minister in peacetime. Privately, that is exactly how many Tory MPs feel.
Mr Johnson will spend the next 48 hours assembling his cabinet and Brexit negotiating team, conscious that how he performs in the next few days will be vital in setting the tone and direction of his new administration.
His victory speech was short but gave a few hints of how he hopes to govern, including a commitment to the kind of “one nation” Conservatism that served him well in his time as London mayor between 2008 and 2016.
He spoke of the “noble” tradition in his party of self-reliance and a commitment to the family, but also highlighted the “equally noble instinct to share and give everyone a fair start in life”.
There was also a hint of conciliation on Brexit: a suggestion that, having tacked hard to the right to win the leadership contest, Mr Johnson may be about to shift back to the centre to try to secure a withdrawal agreement with the EU.
He acknowledged that, while there were some Conservatives who felt “a deep and heartfelt desire for democratic self-government in this country”, there were others who held a deep wish for co-operation with the rest of Europe.
The European Research Group of pro-Leave Tory MPs will be watching carefully to see what kind of people Mr Johnson appoints to his Brexit team: hardliners or those, like attorney-general Geoffrey Cox, who believe something can be salvaged from Theresa May’s deal with the EU.
There was precious little in the way of policy in the speech, but there were the usual rhetorical flourishes.
“Like some slumbering giant we are going to rise and ping off the guy-ropes of self-doubt and negativity with better education, better infrastructure, more police, fantastic full-fibre broadband sprouting in every household,” said Mr Johnson.
He added his campaign slogan “deliver, unite, defeat” — to deliver Brexit, unite the country and defeat Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — had been rebranded to include the word “energise”.
This means the new prime minister can avoid the unfortunate acronym “DUD”, and instead govern under the alternative of “DUDE”.
What challenges will Boris Johnson face?
Few doubt Mr Johnson’s ability to get a laugh out of an audience, but the new Tory leader’s confession that there were some Conservatives who would “question the wisdom” of choosing him to run the country suggested he knew he had to raise his game.
Conor Burns, a supporter of Mr Johnson, said of the result: “It shows the party wants to come in behind the new prime minister.”
But Mr Johnson knows that whatever path he chooses on Brexit, any unity in his party is likely to be shortlived.
Charles Walker, co-chair of the 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs, pleaded with the party: “Can we be kinder to the next prime minister than we were to the current prime minister?”
It may be a forlorn plea. The Tories can be ruthless with leaders deemed to have failed.
The film shown to activists before the coronation airbrushed out of the party’s history Anthony Eden, who took Britain to war in Suez, and Edward Heath, who took the UK into the EU.
As the audience was invited to consider the question of who would write the next chapter of the party’s history, one Tory MP turned to a colleague and whispered: “I hope it’s not a short one.”