Boris Johnson throws Tory MPs into panic
William Hague has often said that the Tory Party has two modes: complacency and panic. Many of the MPs I met this morning were definitely in the latter place.
“Cameron is toast,” one Remain-supporting Tory MP said. “He and the entire project is over. Continuity through George or whoever is over. The next leader will come before the end of the year and it’ll be someone in the next generation.” “Cameron won’t be here long now,” another loyalist said. “This is going to get extremely ugly now,” another Remain MP said.
Another Remain MP said: “We were called the careerists … the careerists are on the other side, double flip-flopping,” he alleged, to keep in with constituency associations.
One Leave MP said: “Cameron can’t go on even if he wins.”
Some took colourful exception to Boris Johnson invoking Churchill in his Telegraph article announcing his decision to back Leave. The more printable of those was: “He’s Churchill alright – Randolph!” That’s a reference to Winston Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph Churchill, a politician of much promise whose career crashed to earth early.
Boris Johnson briefly spoke to Channel 4 News as he rushed off to a ceremony appointing new QCs, including his wife, Marina Wheeler: Michael Gove as Justice Secretary was the man administering the honour. (He also made Ed Miliband’s wife Justine a QC in the same batch.) Asked why he thought so many people questioned his motives he said: “There will always be a lot of bickering and moaning.”
I understand that even when he left Boris Johnson’s house on Tuesday evening, Michael Gove told friends he wasn’t convinced that the Mayor of London had decided to back Leave. One man who might know the state of Boris Johnson’s mind is the Russian businessman, Evgeny Lebedev, who I hear was the fifth guest around the table that evening with the Goves and the Johnsons. Liz Hurley had been expected but didn’t end up there and missed out on a date with history.
Another Tory MP tells me his conversation with Boris Johnson on Saturday, made at the instigation of No. 10 who wanted Mr Johnson’s old friends to try to pull him back, left him thinking the die wasn’t completely cast. One Remain-supporting Tory MP said he’d heard of an earlier draft of Mr Johnson’s Telegraph article backing Leave and published today which makes a rather different argument. Though some with knowledge of Mr Johnson’s work habits might be surprised to think he’d troubled to write two drafts.
Quite how historic the Johnson/Gove intervention in this debate is will only become clear over time. One minister who is backing Remain believes it injects life into the coverage but doesn’t change the result. “It makes it more of a real debate but the fundamentals are the fundamentals.”
“Boris and Michael,” the minister says, “don’t buy the economic arguments (of the Outers), that we’d be freer to trade outside. They don’t buy the immigration arguments. They’ve been the two biggest voices against Theresa (May).” So they both, the minister says, end up focusing on “sovereignty, which literally means nothing to anybody”.
Follow @GaryGibbonBlog on Twitter.