Boris Johnson’s gamble: Will support for Out take him into No 10?

'Even if Cameron wins the referendum, he knows that a majority of Tory Party members will vote Out. They will choose the next leader. So it’s obvious what he should do'

Boris Johnson and David Cameron’s relationship has always been complex
Boris Johnson and David Cameron’s relationship has always been complex

After David Cameron became Conservative Party leader 10 years ago, he joked that when he did a public walkabout with Boris Johnson, then a mere junior frontbencher, people would ask: “Who’s that guy with Boris Johnson?”

The friendship and rivalry between the Eton contemporaries has always been fascinating. Boris is two years older than the man he calls “Dave”, and so must have had decidedly mixed feelings when his friend became Tory leader. “I was a scholarship boy!” Boris booms when you ask him about Eton. The unstated bit is that Dave was not because of his privileged background.

I remember watching the double act up close when Mr Cameron launched Mr Johnson’s campaign to become Mayor of London in 2008. The body language was awkward. London was a big prize for Mr Cameron. But, typically, Boris was the Boris Party candidate; his campaign material barely mentioned the Tories. Or Dave.

Now the story of the two frenemies has taken a dramatic twist. The Prime Minister hoped the Mayor would support him by urging a vote to remain in the EU referendum. But Cameron aides feared all along that “Boris would do the right thing –for Boris’s career.” He did.

He recently told a fellow MP he had “never been an Outer.” Even some allies in the Leave camp believe he has made a calculated decision to enhance his prospects of succeeding Mr Cameron. As one Tory MP put it: “He doesn’t want to back the losing side. But even if Cameron wins the referendum, he knows that a majority of Tory Party members will vote Out. They will choose the next leader. So it’s obvious what he should do.”

Mr Johnson’s decision is in keeping with his first brush with the EU as Brussels correspondent of The Daily Telegraph in the early 1990s. He became a thorn in the side of the EU establishment by writing about the European Commission’s latest directive on sausages, crisps or bananas. I have covered EU summits since 1987 and once scooped Boris by revealing a Commission plan to ban page three pin-ups at the workplace. Some of Boris’s stories were more accurate than others: the plan to blow up the Commission’s Berlaymont HQ because of asbestos is yet to be implemented. But his revelations had a big impact on domestic politics and made his name. His fellow hacks suspected that he was not really anti-EU but was just doing what was best for his career. Plus ca change.

A more charitable view of this week’s decision is that Mr Johnson believes an Out vote in June would force the EU to concede much better membership terms for the UK than Mr Cameron has secured. The Mayor has floated the idea of a second referendum. So has Dominic Cummings, the architect of the Vote Leave campaign. It is a very clever ploy to win the June vote, and weakens the Remain camp’s most potent argument – that Brexit would be a leap in the dark.

On 26 February Michael Howard, the former Tory leader and Mr Cameron’s mentor, became the latest friend of Dave to desert him by declaring for Out. The Tory peer argued that, despite the EU’s denials, if Britain voted to leave, there would be “a significant chance” the EU would ask us to think again. He recalled that when Ireland and Denmark rejected EU proposals, they were offered more concessions. However, the two referendums in question were not about EU membership, but specific treaties.

Mr Cameron has dismissed talk of further negotiations as “for the birds.” He is right. I have spent more time in Brussels than any other capital apart from London, and so know a little bit about how the EU establishment thinks. I believe there would be no route back if we vote to leave. True, the woefully-handled migration crisis has shaken the EU to its foundations, so it could not afford Brexit. But it could afford even less to offer more goodies to Britain, which would invite the populists and nationalists across Europe to demand “special status” for their countries. That might result in a round of destabilising referendums that could break up the EU.

Similarly, I am convinced that the other 27 members would give the UK a bad divorce settlement “pour decourager les autres” from copying Britain. Remember that the 27 will sit in a room to decide the terms and the UK will not have a seat at the table. The Outers argue that the Germans would still want to sell their cars in Britain. True, but commitment to the EU project would trump that, so the UK would get a lousy deal. Like Norway, part of the European Economic Area, the UK would still have to pay an entry fee to the club and accept some level of free movement of people.

As for our trade agreements with the rest of the world, the 53 we currently have through the EU would almost certainly have to wait until we had sorted our deal with the 27 remaining members, as the 53 nations would want to see the EU-UK terms first. The EU negotiations would take two years; the other trade talks many more. Such a delay would be very bad for British business.

The Out camp naturally portrays a bright future for the UK outside the EU. Yet it is revealing that some of its leading lights seem ready to stay in if we got a better deal to put to a second referendum.

Mr Cameron insists he would be duty bound to accept the people’s verdict and would immediately trigger Brexit negotiations after an Out vote. Perhaps Tory MPs who like the idea of a second referendum would try to oust him at that point. And who would be best qualified to take over? Someone who always fancied another referendum, perhaps? Like Boris.

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