Has Boris Johnson blown his chances of becoming PM by backing Brexit?

He seemed like a man who lived a charmed life until he gambled on Brexit being his route to the top job

Mary Dejevsky
Thursday 28 April 2016 15:23 BST
Boris Johnson has not played well outside of London and the south-east on the 'Leave' campaign trail
Boris Johnson has not played well outside of London and the south-east on the 'Leave' campaign trail (Getty)

It seems a very long time ago now, but it is only nine weeks since that Sunday afternoon when the inimitable figure of Boris Johnson shambled out of his Islington home to face an excited scrum of reporters. The Mayor of London, MP for Uxbridge, and possible Prime Minister in waiting, had finally decided which side he was going to plump for in the Europe referendum.

In a characteristically elegant statement, he announced that, after much deliberation, he was throwing in his lot with the Leave campaign. Less characteristically, he retreated into his house without taking questions.

The political frenzy was immediate. A majority for Leave suddenly looked a whole lot more plausible. “Brexit” had to be treated as a realistic possibility. And when the markets opened the next morning, Sterling fell - such was the influence this one man’s decision was deemed likely to exert on the campaign.

One of the few first-name only politicians, it was envisaged, would be out there deploying all his personal charm, wit and persuasive power to argue that the UK should leave. In Michael Gove, the stolid line-up of Cabinet Brexiteers already had its heavyweight thinker; suddenly it also had its star.

Boris on Obama

Nine weeks on from that dour winter Sunday, however, things look rather different. And the thought occurs: was the Boris effect exaggerated? More to the point: could Boris have blown it?

Until a few weeks ago, Boris’s life had seemed charmed, and his continued rise as inevitable as it was effortless. He was a journalist-turned-politician with an imperviousness to scandal reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s. As a leading Brexiteer, however, he has seemed unusually ill at ease, and his weeks so far on the campaign trail have been chequered.

His difficulties began with the speculation that he had chosen Leave, not because he really believed in the cause, but to further his own ambitions. His agonising, it was suggested, came not from trying to weigh the benefits to the country of EU membership, but from trying to second-guess the result to maximise his own advantage. He was seen to be gambling on Brexit as a route to succeeding David Cameron as Conservative leader and Prime Minister.

Now it may be that Boris Johnson’s support for Leave is, as he insists, based solely on the merits of the case. But one reason why the speculation about ulterior motives commands credence is that the mayor’s cosmopolitan background and the way he has boasted of London’s diversity around the world seem at odds with the Little Englander arguments of Brexit.

To an extent, then, his campaign started off on the wrong foot. Very soon, however, it ran into more difficulty. Almost for the first time in his gilded political existence, Boris has found himself having to mix it with the really big boys. In the past his popular appeal was seen as an asset both by his party and by the Prime Minister, which afforded him considerable freedom to be “Boris”. As of 21 February, this was no longer true.

David Cameron was the first to take the gloves off, savaging the London mayor’s decision in an unusually personal - and effective - way. A month later, Boris found himself subject to a grilling on his EU stance from the Treasury select committee. His usual weapons - bluster and humour - were of scant use against the incisiveness of Andrew Tyrie.

If that session cast doubt on the soundness of Boris Johnson’s knowledge and discernment about Europe - despite an upbringing spent in part in Brussels and a later stint as a reporter there - his campaign has so far raised, and perhaps helped to answer, two further questions.

The first is how well does Boris play outside the melting-pot of London and the prosperous South-east? The answer, if his recent whistle-stop northern tour is a guide, is not very well. Now it may be that the Remain campaign is dispatching agents to hound Boris wherever he may be, but in Newcastle and Leeds he faced heckling. And while you might have expected so confident and witty a politician to use such opposition to his advantage, instead he seemed at a loss.

The other concerns his suitability for the really top job. For years, Boris has won over audiences at home and abroad by mixing and matching two or more of the following: bravado, self-deprecation, buffoonishness, genuine cleverness, a first-rate Classical education, excellent French and the sort of social confidence that Eton and Oxford confer.

To give the President of the United States the same semi-serious treatment as an Oxbridge chum, however, reflects judgement that was at very least flawed. It was not just the “part-Kenyan” jibe contained in his article in The Sun before Barack Obama arrived in the UK, but the pursuit of the non-conversation, as though he and the US President were international equals.

You could argue, of course, that all politicians make mistakes and are all the better for the lessons learned. But Boris is 51; he has served two terms as Mayor of London. He is pretty close to being a fully-fledged UK politician. This was quite some tone-deafness from someone with so much experience.

Of course, it is still early in what is, for the UK, a long campaign. Boris is nothing if not a competitor and he has the best part of two months to become the force that David Cameron and the Remainers clearly feared.

It if he does not, though, what then? It was always true that a Remain victory was going to stall, if not end, Boris’s career in politics. In backing Brexit, he chose that risk. After a problematic few weeks, however, it is not obvious that even a win for Brexit would further his ambitions in the way he surely hoped. Far from demonstrating his strengths as a politician, what is turning out to be a thoroughly grown-up EU referendum campaign has so far done more to expose his weakness - and, ultimately, his unsuitability for the highest office.

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