LONDON: He was described as a "court jester" by his Tory opponents during the bitter referendum campaign. But when he walked out of his north London home, just an hour after David Cameron had resigned as Prime Minister yesterday, Boris Johnson did so as the most powerful Conservative in Britain.
Gone was the bicycle, the helmet and the trouser leg stuffed into a sock.Thronged by cameramen and bystanders, Mr Johnson, in an immaculate suit, was ushered into a waiting car and driven to Vote Leave's headquarters to give the most important speech of his political life.
In the hours that followed, he appealed for unity as he used a statesmanlike address to reach out to the millions of voters who did not back a Brexit.
It was seen by Westminster insiders as the unofficial launch of a campaign that will see him installed at Downing Street within months.
Allies said his performance was "that of a Prime Minister in waiting" and considered him ready to assume the leadership of the party.
During his speech, Mr Johnson said that the UK had a "glorious opportunity" to re-establish itself on the world stage where it "can find our voice in the world again".
Flanked by Labour's Gisela Stuart and Michael Gove, who is now expected to join Mr Johnson as part of a "dream team" leadership ticket, he called it a huge opportunity.
Directly addressing the millions of voters who backed Remain, Mr Johnson insisted that the vote did not represent a retreat into isolationism, and that Britain would remain a "great European power".
He said: "I want to speak to the millions of people who did not vote for this outcome, especially young people who may feel that this decision in some way involves pulling up the drawbridge or any kind of isolationism. I think the very opposite is true.
"To those who may be anxious at home or abroad, this does not mean that the UK will be in any way less united. Nor indeed does it mean that it will be any less European."
Despite many Tories believing it is now a "near-certainty" that Mr Johnson will become prime minister, it emerged yesterday that moderate Conservative MPs are "flocking" to Theresa May in an attempt to block his leadership.
Conservative MPs must win two nominations from their colleagues in order to enter the leadership race.
If more than two candidates are nominated, voting takes place to whittle them down before party members across the country are given the opportunity to vote.
It quickly became clear that Mr Johnson is already the runaway favourite to succeed Mr Cameron as Tory leader.
The Daily Telegraph understands that Mr Johnson could install Mr Gove as his Chancellor, and potentially move George Osborne to the Foreign Office.
Mrs May, the Home Secretary, is being championed by Conservative MPs as the "stop Boris candidate" ahead of a leadership race that is expected to conclude in October.
One MP intent on backing Mrs May told The Daily Telegraph: "Theresa will be seen as the unity candidate, she is our best hope of blocking Boris from becoming prime minister."
The comments came as George Osborne announced that he will stay on as Chancellor of the Exchequer despite calls from Brexit-backing Conservatives for him to leave the Government.
Mr Osborne, the previous frontrunner to succeed Mr Cameron, has seen his stock fall following a number of interventions during the run-up to the referendum that were branded as "scaremongering" by MPs.
In a posting on social media, he said: "It was a hard-fought campaign. It is not the outcome that I wanted, but I respect the decision of British people and will do all I can to make
Andrea Leadsom and Priti Patel, both anti-EU ministers, Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, and Stephen Crabb, the Work and Pensions Secretary who replaced Iain Duncan Smith, have also been tipped, despite the latter pair being pro-EU.
Mrs Morgan, who was one of the first Tory MPs to declare her ambitions, said yesterday: "It would be great in the 21st century to have a woman in the final two."
Another possible leadership candidate is Mr Gove, the Justice Secretary, despite his frequent denials that he wants the job.
Amber Rudd, the Energy Secretary, and Ruth Davidson the Scottish Conservative leader, both pro-Remain, are also seen to have boosted their credentials by stepping up to defend the Prime Minister during the referendum campaign.
A Conservative minister said: "It is important that we see a female candidate on the ballot paper this time around.
"There's really one person in a position to do that and it is Theresa.
"Boris has a bit of a reputation for not being around in the Chamber much. He doesn't have a very good reputation in the House, and he has upset people during the campaign."
Mr Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader and ex-work and pensions secretary, said he regretted Mr Cameron's decision to quit, although he urged his party's MPs to focus on helping to stabilise the country. He said he wanted the exit renegotiation with Brussels to start now: "They want to get sorted, they want to do a deal and I agree with them - that's why we shouldn't waste time.
"We should get on with it now and we can come up with a very good deal with them and it'll stabilise everything.
"We'll have a relationship with them - we're not running away - it will just be a better relationship."
Addressing Mr Cameron's future, Mr Duncan Smith said: "I'm sorry that he has stepped down. I think he's been a good Prime Minister and I regret his decision, but I understand why he's done it.
"Our job now is to make sure that we get the process that the public voted for under way and settled.
"He's now said there will be a leadership election, but I'd like to get on with that, so we'll be discussing all of that over the next few days."
Mr Duncan Smith refused to be drawn on the respective leadership prospects of his fellow Brexit supporters Mr Gove and Mr Johnson, with a decision expected by October.
He said: "I'm not even focusing on the candidates. I've no idea who is going to stand or why they want to stand, but I know I just want to get this process [with the EU member states] sorted and under way, which is the most important thing to me.
"The leadership stuff is secondary, frankly."