Yesterday, the media reported on the publication of a pro-EU article by arch-Brexiteer Boris Johnson. It was one of three articles Johnson wrote in the beginning of the year when he was still deciding which side to back.
In response to speculation surrounding the news, Johnson has said that he had “wrestled” with the referendum question, “like a lot of people in the country”, before arriving at the view that Britain should leave.
I wrote a long piece which came down overwhelmingly in favour of leaving. I then thought I’d better see if I can make the alternative case to myself, so I wrote a semi-parodic article in the other sense, which has mysteriously found its way into the papers this morning (I might have sent it to a friend). I set them side by side and it was blindingly obvious what the right thing to do was.
It’s certainly true that the second article isn’t convincing. In fact, it includes a damning verdict on Cameron’s EU negotiation, which might seem peculiar for an article arguing that Britain should remain in the EU.
How important was Johnson’s ambition?
Some Remainers have sought to capitalise on Johnson’s pro-EU article, arguing that it shows that Johnson didn’t believe the arguments he made on behalf of the Leave Campaign. They argue Johnson made the decision to campaign for Britain’s exit from the EU purely because he felt it offered him the best chance of getting the keys to Number 10.
The suggestion that Johnson’s career ambitions influenced his decision to join the Leave Campaign is wholly plausible. In fact, it would be surprising if they hadn’t.
The question is the extent to which Johnson’s ambition influenced his decision to support the Leave Campaign. Would Johnson really have campaigned for Brexit if he had believed that it would be disastrous for Britain, as some Remainers have suggested?
It is often said that Johnson wants to be loved – that he needs the attention and adoration of the crowd. If Johnson had believed Remain “doom-mongers”, the last thing he would have wanted to do is lead Britain off the proverbial cliff. To gamble on Remain winning would have been to take an intolerable risk.
Johnson didn’t have a strong view
It is more likely that Johnson considered that both leaving and remaining were acceptable options. He probably decided to support Leave to boost his appeal to the Conservative grassroots and thereby improve his chance of becoming PM.
But if Johnson thought remaining might have been an option, why was his pro EU article so weak? Why admit that Cameron’s EU deal was unsatisfactory? Surely, Johnson should have set both sides out as best he could before arriving at a decision.
Perhaps the answer is that Johnson calculated that it would be politically unwise to be an ardent Remainer. Had he been an ardent Remainer, he would have forever lost the support of Leavers. Much better to back remain with reservations, as he does in his pro EU article.
If Remain won, Johnson would be on the winning side. He would then have a decent shot at No.10 when Cameron stood aside ahead of the 2020 Election (as promised).
If Leave won, Johnson could signal his readiness to carry out the wishes of the British people following Cameron’s inevitable resignation. His tepid support for the Remain Campaign would be a thing of the past. Suddenly, he would declare himself a late Brexiteer.
The Brexiteer for Remain
In the event, things didn’t entirely go Johnson’s way.
Had Remain won – as virtually everyone predicted would be the case – Johnson would have been in a favourable position. To Leavers, he would be a heroic figure who had tried but failed to take Britain out of the EU. To Remainers, he would be the man who graciously accepted defeat. And by accepting the will of the British people, he would be seen to demonstrate statesmanship.
In the event, Leave won with disastrous implications for Johnson. Since Johnson had been a vocal proponent of Brexit, he now found that many resented his role in the referendum campaign. The moment angry crowds booed him as he left his home on the morning of June 24 was the moment it became clear that Johnson was too divisive for Number 10.
Well played, Prime Minister
The irony of this referendum is that the Brexit Prime Minister had to be a someone from the losing side.
It had to be someone who accepted the vote to Leave despite having voted to Remain. It had to be someone who would encourage acceptance through her example – someone to bring the country together again.
On a purely tactical level, there can be no doubt that Prime Minister May deserved her victory. Theresa May’s official position during the campaign had been that she favoured Britain remaining in the EU. But she was a very quiet Remainer for such a prominent politician.
One could almost be forgiven for thinking she had wanted Britain to vote Leave…