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Barack Obama on the EU referendum: I won't tell you how to vote but here's how I want you to vote

But Boris Johnson's clowning is a disservice to democracy: the British people deserve to hear a better case for Britain to leave the EU

John Rentoul
Sunday 24 April 2016 15:03 BST

I’m not going to tell you how to vote, but you should vote to stay in the EU, said Barack Obama on Friday. Those weren’t his exact words. His exact words were “ultimately something the British people have to decide for themselves” and “but” and “friends have to be honest” and so on, at some length.

The President should keep his opinions to himself, the British people told pollsters. They had a “but” too, which was that his intervention actually made them more likely to vote to stay. Not that such a finding is reliable. One thing we know about opinion polls is that people are bad at predicting what they will do.

But the weight of endorsements is likely to push the voters only one way. We don’t want to be told what to do, but when the President of the US, the leaders of all our allies, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Governor of the Bank of England, the leader of all parties apart from Ukip and the bosses of most big companies recommend something, we are bound to wonder.

Just how bloody-minded do British voters have to be to kick against such a mass of panjandrums? This may be an anti-politics age. It may be fashionable to rage against the establishment, but for a lot of younger ragers, Jeremy Corbyn, Nicola Sturgeon, Leanne Wood and Caroline Lucas have confused things by moving the barricades.

Obama has dinner in Kensington

Against such a consensus, we look for someone to put the opposite view. And who is there? Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. I have a higher opinion of both of them than most pro-Europeans do. I thought Gove made a strong argument in his speech on Tuesday that German car makers would never allow their government to impose tariffs on British imports because Britain is one of their most important markets.

This was derided by No 10 as the “Albanian” argument – a brilliant piece of propaganda, and congratulations to Craig Oliver, the Prime Minister’s head of communications, if he thought of it – because Gove pointed out that Iceland, Albania, Serbia, Macedonia and Turkey were part of the EU’s no-tariff free-trade zone. He was right: if we left the EU, we would be able to trade freely with it.

The trouble for the Outers is that Gove is still unpopular because when he was Education Secretary he annoyed the teachers, third only to junior doctors and nurses in the public esteem charts, and he comes across on TV as too pleased with himself.

So that leaves Johnson. And his water-pistol aimed at the President’s motorcade on Friday just soaked his own face. Journalist that he is, he wanted a funny story for the opening of his pre-emptive article in The Sun, and so he recycled an essentially untrue story about Obama chucking a bust of Winston Churchill out of the White House, and added the spin that this might be because the President bore a grudge against the British on behalf of his Kenyan grandfather who was imprisoned during the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s. Did someone say clown?

Johnson’s intervention was a disservice to democracy. The case for leaving the EU is a strong one, and deserves to be put to the British people with clarity and care. There are arguments against Obama that ought to be heard. Johnson did indeed make the point that the US would never accept the kind of external authority that he thinks the British should continue to accept. But his clowning in his first paragraph obliterated that important debate and undermined his own authority.

It is baffling. Since his decision to put himself at the head of the Leave campaign in February, Johnson presents himself as the alternative prime minister. If the British people vote to come out of the EU, he would negotiate our departure. You would have thought this meant he surrounded himself with a team of capable people, working above all on the policy questions that are going to come up in the referendum campaign. Their first responsibility, though, would be to stop him making stupid mistakes. This can be hard when a politician is speaking without notes in front of a camera, although Johnson has developed a technique known as bumble and bluster that gives him time to avoid the most obvious mistakes.

But when a politician is writing an article for a newspaper, you would have thought that someone might have read it through and said, “This bit where you talk about ‘the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire’, do you think that will help?”

So instead of good arguments being made in a disciplined way for Britain to leave the EU, we get Gove making elegant speeches that sound like his old newspaper columns, we get Johnson making a fool of himself and we get the chief bureaucrat of the Leave campaign, Dominic Cummings, turning up for a select committee hearing with his shirt all over the place, no cufflinks and telling the chairman, “I’ve got another meeting at four, so I’ll have to be out of here before that.”

I am willing to listen to Johnson’s complaints about President Obama coming over here and telling people how to vote when he has put up the decent case for leaving the EU that the British people deserve to hear.

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