Apparently Boris Johnson didn't want Brexit to happen at all – but that's a good thing

Sir Alan Duncan, one of Johnson's junior ministers, revealed this week that he believes Johnson never actually wanted Leave to win in the EU referendum

John Rentoul
Friday 23 September 2016 09:27 BST
Boris Johnson never wanted Brexit and only backed Leave to become ‘heir apparent’ to Tory throne

One of Boris Johnson’s junior ministers, Sir Alan Duncan, said that the future Foreign Secretary backed Brexit only because he wanted to be Conservative leader.

The day before the referendum, he said: “I’ve always thought that Boris’s wish was to lose by one so that he could be the heir apparent without having to have all the… you know, s-h-1-t of clearing up all the mess, that’s always been my view of Boris.”

The footage will be broadcast tonight on BBC2, “Brexit: A Very British Coup?” Which is even more embarrassing for Sir Alan than having called his future boss “Silvio Borisconi” in the Commons – after the referendum but before Theresa May became Prime Minister and appointed him a Minister of State at the Foreign Office.

So now not only does Johnson have to clear up all the mess of Brexit, but Sir Alan has to explain to his line manager – while they clear up the mess together – that he has changed his mind and now realises that Johnson was a sincere Brexiteer all along.

Actually, Sir Alan’s view was commonplace at the time. It is just that most of the people who said it about Johnson didn’t end up working for him. I suspect it is wrong – although in the end it is impossible to separate sincerity and self-interest in anyone, let alone in Boris Johnson.

In any case, what cannot be doubted is that Johnson was pretty 50-50 about the case for leaving the EU until he made up his mind in February, and that is not a bad position for him.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the centre ground of politics. George Osborne stood up for “the liberal mainstream majority” on the Today programme last week. Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, praised Tony Blair in his speech to his party conference this week. Some people even think that Blair closed his profit-making businesses to prepare for a return to politics. And today David Miliband reminded everyone that he can still make the case for “a relevant, persuasive, open-minded” (that is, centrist) left in the New Statesman.

I don’t think either Blair or David Miliband is likely to return to British politics. Nor do I think that the Labour Party is going to split, which is some people’s idea of a short cut to the centre-left.

The centre ground has been broken by Brexit. The EU divide runs right through it, and Blair found himself on the wrong side of the divide, on the 48 per cent side. A centrist would be on the 52 per cent side, reaching out to the Remainers. A centrist would accept the result of the referendum and try to make it work. Like Theresa May, a reluctant Remainer turned pragmatic Leaver. Or like Boris Johnson, a secret reluctant Remainer or an only-just Leaver who understands the benefits of immigration and the dangers of Brexit to the City of London.

But unlike Blair, who was one of the first to try to keep open the option of a second referendum. And unlike David Miliband, who wants to “set clear tests for the government's negotiations with the European Union, to show how a progressive approach to engagement with the EU helps manage globalisation”, which implies trying to obstruct Brexit.

Johnson and May are the centre ground now.

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