Twenty years ago, John Major famously called the members of his cabinet who wanted Britain to leave the EU “bastards”. Though David Cameron has not used exactly the same word, the intent was the same when he cast aspersions on why one particular person had joined the “Vote Leave” gang. Referring to his own eventual resignation, Cameron stated that “I am not standing for re-election. I have no other agenda than what is best for our country.” The man in question is, of course, Boris Johnson. Yet for a man who stood for the SDP so that he could become President of the Oxford Union it is hardly surprising.
Following the 2015 Conservative victory, Boris Johnson seemed to vanish. Having returned to Parliament before the end of his mayoralty (breaking his “fingers crossed” promise not to do so) Johnson seemed fade from the public consciousness. He could be seen occasionally popping up in the background of PMQs or out on the hustings with Zac Goldsmith but the blonde political whirlwind lost his spin.
Yet as soon as Cameron had secured his EU deal, Boris was back. At the most politically well-timed moment, when the countdown to the referendum has just begun Johnson made a fateful decision; to go against all of his political background and opt for the Leave campaign. Whilst Johnson has always liked to be critical of the EU, he is a committed Europhile. Yet this position, this personal conviction that Britain should stay in a reformed Europe puts a blockade into Mr Johnson’s ultimate goal – the premiership. By opposing the Prime Minister, Johnson is essentially calling for a fight, a no hold bars battle of rhetoric deciding who is right and who has the powerbase to become the next Prime Minister. If Johnson had stayed on the same side as the Prime Minister, he would have merely faded into the background, perhaps showing up for the odd press event with Cameron up front. Yet more than this, Johnson is directly challenging not just Cameron but Cameron’s chosen successor – the Chancellor.
Osborne is Cameron’s right hand man and has been since before they entered Parliament. Together, they helped to transform the image of the Tories in the eyes of the public in a similar way that Thatcher had before him. Cameron is, surprisingly to some, on the liberal end of the Conservative party and as such would want a Europhile, liberal minded person to succeed him; the obvious candidate is Osborne who is a committed member of the Remain Campaign. Yet grassroots Tories and more traditionally “conservative” members of the party would prefer someone much more right wing than Osborne. By going to the Leave campaign, Johnson is making clear his intention to Osborne – that he will fight him and take the premiership that he thinks he deserves. He’s also sending a message out to his right wing supporters – that he will tackle the “modernisers” of the party and take the Tories back a good twenty years.
Yet even if the Leave camp don’t win, Johnson will still have scored himself a victory. He will have taken huge swathes of the Eurosceptic Tories to his bosom and shown that he can fight a national campaign. He’ll also be able to claim that he fought a fight to take Britain out of the EU and as such will stand up for Britain’s place on the global stage – making him an attractive prospect for UKIP’s “people’s army” and in a better position than the austerity prone Chancellor of the Exchequer to put forward a positive message for the Tories to the general public.
Ultimately, Johnson’s career will not be finished whether Britain leaves Europe or not. Johnson may seem to many like a clown, a buffoon yet Lord Black’s comment that he is a “fox disguised as a teddy bear” seems no less true now than ever. He is one of politics’ most able operators; a prime example was when Johnson’s father, Stanley appeared across the news the day Boris’s announcement was heard. Stanley Johnson made clear that Boris was taking a real political risk – his “career was on the line”. Might it be overly cynically to suggest the reason for this was so that those who might support a more Eurosceptic Boris for PM needed a little encouragement to believe his devotion to the cause was genuine? I think not.