Monday was confirmation for anyone who might have deluded themselves otherwise – David Cameron and the Conservative leadership are intent on remaining inside the European Union (EU) no matter what. The Prime Minister has raised his standard as the leader of the Remain campaign and can now campaign with all his heart and soul to keep Britain inside the EU.
The PM is an excellent political operator, so it is imperative a suitable opponent steps up to contest him for the Leave side. Many Cabinet ministers, along with leaders of other political parties, have been proposed. But there is only one figure whose public persona would make him the ideal gladiatorial combatant against the PM… Boris Johnson.
Much has been made of the attempts of both sides to woo Boris to support their cause, recognising his presence would be a huge boon for the Leave campaign. Several of the papers are reporting how Boris is now set to back the PM’s EU deal. Boris has been demanding a ‘hard line’ on British sovereignty and there are now rumours ministers may introduce new legislation asserting the authority of Westminster over Brussels ‘within weeks’. This may now swing his allegiance to Cameron.
However, not enough attention has been given to the advantages for Boris of leading the Leave campaign for Brexit. It might quite simply be the best – barring a scandal engulfing the Treasury – and the only way for him to succeed David Cameron as Prime Minister.
On Tuesday’s regular LBC Radio phone-in show, Boris called for the UK to be handed powers to veto EU laws on its own – without having to rely on support from other Member States. This was in significant contrast to Cameron’s ‘con’ renegotiation deal which European Council President Donald Tusk announced this week.
The Mayor of London’s subsequent comments on the show observed how the PM has been doing a “very, very good job of getting people to see things his way.”
As Boris is not tied into ‘Cabinet collective responsibility’ he clearly believes he can get away with making comments for either side in this referendum debate.
Boris has long flirted with Euroscepticism in his weekly Daily Telegraph column. However, he has so far parked himself firmly on the fence, unwilling to fully commit to either side. In many ways this was forced by Cameron’s strategy of insisting senior Conservatives and ministers remain supportive of his renegotiation efforts. This has so far ensured senior Eurosceptics keep quiet or else be branded disloyal by the Prime Minister, with subsequent threats made on their future positions in the Conservative Party.
Cameron clearly plans to spend the next two weeks promoting his negotiation ‘success’, rather than any attempts to improve on the so-called ‘deal’. Eurosceptics can now safely conclude this is going to be the best deal the PM will get from Brussels. Any subsequent ‘rabbits’ can be safely discounted as final attempts by Cameron to distract an already disappointed Great British Public.
This is now the time for Eurosceptic ministers to get off their own fences and voice their concerns about the EU. Several MPs will ignore their inherent Eurosceptic urges and beliefs out of a sense of misguided loyalty to the David Cameron because they want to secure future promotion. They would hardly be alone.
We have already seen Philip Hammond betray his long-held Eurosceptic beliefs in return for the Foreign Office, and William Hague renounce his past Euroscepticism in order to rally round Cameron. But Boris should take note now: neither of these men would be a credible replacement for Cameron in 2020 – and have nothing to gain from backing the Leave campaign.
Boris clearly has a desire to make a bigger name for himself and perhaps lead the Conservative Party. Cameron’s rather foolish promise not to fight another general election has ensured this Parliament will be dominated by the manoeuvres of his wannabe successors. In due course, much attention will be paid to the mechanism of the Conservative leadership elections, which narrows the field to two choices on the ballot paper before a postal ballot of the wider party membership is conducted. As such it’s vital for any leadership candidate to be backed by a significant section of the parliamentary party, so popularity with Conservative members and supporters is of no consequence if they are unable to make it onto the two-person ballot.
This raises problems for Boris. While he is popular among Tory members – and indeed among voters as a whole, particularly in London – he lacks significant support within Parliament. This is understandable, considering as Mayor of London he has been based in City Hall for much of the last decade. However, this puts him in stark contrast to the presumed favourite to succeed Cameron – his heir apparent George Osborne.
We have already seen the Chancellor’s numerous attempts to claim the centre ground of British politics as his own. Both Boris and Osborne sit on the centre-left of the Party ensuring they will have to directly compete for like-minded MPs. In this contest Osborne already has the upper hand, and his large network of patronage will ensure his name will feature on the leadership ballot paper. Boris will therefore have to secure greater support from a different wing of the parliamentary party, yet this is easier said than done. There are a large number of other potential candidates, many of whom have long-standing links to the right and Eurosceptic wings of the party.
A successful vote for Brexit in the referendum would secure Boris’ path to the leadership. Cameron’s assurances he will stay on in the event us voting to Leave the EU are pure fantasy. Having nailed his colours to the EU’s mast, Cameron would never be trusted by Conservative backbenchers to negotiate Britain’s withdrawal under article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. He will no doubt follow the example of his recent predecessors and jump before he is pushed. Osborne, having supported EU membership to a greater extent than Cameron has, would also find his leadership plans in tatters. Osborne’s current support amongst MPs is based on his influence alongside the perceived inevitability of his accession, rather than due to any genuine fondness or preference for the Chancellor to succeed Cameron.
Boris on the other hand could secure support from the Eurosceptic wing of the Party. He could safely rely on the 70 or so Tory MPs likely to come out for Brexit, recognising the fact Boris committed to the Eurosceptic cause when it mattered most. Added to this, there are a significant number of Tory MPs whose Euroscepticism would re-emerge once the threat of Cameron’s displeasure is removed. There would also be a not insignificant number of MPs who would rebel against Osborne as a candidate – and Boris could be sure of making the ballot.
With the more difficult task complete, Boris would simply need to portray himself as the charismatic and charming alternative to the stiff and calculating Osborne. In the popularity contest between these two, there would be only one winner. Even if Britain votes to remain in the EU, Boris would at least secure support for himself. If he falls back into line with Cameron now – alongside all the other repentant Eurosceptics – it will fatally damage his reputation with Eurosceptics, who will believe he has abandoned them for a Cabinet post. Without them, Boris will never be able to make it onto the ballot to face Osborne. The Eurosceptics would rally round one of their own who would go on to contest the leadership with the Chancellor.
At the moment Boris may be wary of getting caught up in the current infighting amongst the Leave campaigns. Many Eurosceptics may seem more focused on acting out their own version of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but once official designation has been given to one of the Leave campaigns, this will cease. They will all need to start working together to ensure we Get Britain Out of the EU – with or without Boris!
As a classicist Boris Johnson will recognise the Ancient Greeks liked nothing more than fighting each other. However, when faced with the loss of their freedom and their laws to foreign despotism in the guise of the Persian king, they came together. Against all odds they won a victory which is still celebrated to this day. It should be both an honour and a pleasure for Boris to carry on this most ancient fight to secure democracy and freedom for the people of the United Kingdom.
Jayne Adye, Director of cross-party grassroots Eurosceptic campaign, Get Britain Out.