21 Feb 2016

After much deliberation, Boris Johnson joins leave campaign

Boris Johnson has declared for Leave after a tortuous political journey that hasn’t necessarily raised his political share price. He’ll have some work to do convincing colleagues he didn’t do it for personal, tactical advantage. But he’s got himself out of so many scrapes that may not matter. And friends say this isn’t about political calculation but a moment when he felt he had to be “true to himself.” 

At the beginning of this year, friends and family said the Mayor was pretty much a certainty for staying in. One ally says that as recently as Monday of this week he ended a conversation feeling the Mayor was for staying in. 

By the time they’d cleared the plates after dinner at Chez Johnson on Tuesday evening  with Mr and Mrs Gove, he was for Out. The next day the meeting with David Cameron at No. 10 went pretty badly. One friend of Boris Johnson’s says the Mayor felt talked down to, treated slightly like an idiot. Mr Johnson has often been heard to make disparaging remarks about David Cameron’s intellect.

Mr Johnson then retreated to Thame in Oxfordshire. The Prime Minister was said to be badgering him with calls but some were neither answered not returned. In recent times, one Johnson ally says, the PM has offered Boris Johnson every job in government except Chancellor.

Talking to Leave campaigners in the past few months and you’ll have heard them pour insults over Boris Johnson. They were convinced he’d sold out as they saw it. If he throws himself into campaigning, they’ll now carry him shoulder high and punch the air, memories of embittered resentments disappearing like snow. 

Marina Wheeler, Boris Johnson’s wife, has been a significant voice in his hardening position.

Polls may have exaggerated his influence on voters. Some have suggested he cancels out the impact of David Cameron endorsing Remain when it comes to Tory supporting voters.

The one crumb of comfort No. 10 will take from his declaration, in front of his house in Islington, a vintage Etonian Columbo number, was his emphasis on “sovereignty.” He’s told friends that in the end that is the issue that decided him. He repeatedly used the term throughout the doorstep press conference. Number 10 thinks it is an abstraction that doesn’t connect with voters. I noticed that Sir Bill Cash has even stopped using it for similar reasons. If he sticks to that riff, No. 10 will feel their message of jobs and security could still cut through to voters.

There are other implications for the Tory Party itself and life after June. David Cameron thought he wouldn’t lose Boris Johnson and wouldn’t lose half his MPs. But the signs are he could lose both. The centre of gravity in the Tory Party isn’t quite where he thought it was and residual deference isn’t as strong as he might’ve guessed.

That could have implications even if he wins the referendum. Will the party let him serve out his term to 2019 if he’s helped to imposed EU membership on them in perpetuity. Will there be agitation for a Leave supporter to succeed him? Will they (as Labour did after the In camp won the 1975 referendum) end up sliding towards a manifesto commitment for Out? 

Boris Johnson emphasised in his press conference that he wouldn’t debate with other Tories, one David Cameron bit of advice that he has accepted. On TV this morning, no. 10 insisted that David Cameron wouldn’t appear on the same programme as a dissenting minister (Iain Duncan Smith). To give you an idea of what a face to face might be like, we’ve chopped them together. You can see it here. Watch it and you may wonder what impact on Tory coherence 4 months of this sort of free for all will have.

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