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25 February 2016

It’s not Boris Johnson who threatens Britain’s membership of the European Union – it’s the migrant crisis

Pro-Europe campaigners are understandably worried that Johnson has come out for the other side. But events, not individuals, remain the biggest threat to Britain’s membership of the EU.

By Stephen Bush

February 2015. It’s election season – but then, isn’t it always? Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London and Conservative member for Uxbridge, and George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, are at Tate Modern to announce an outpouring of funds for the capital.

But there is a problem: Johnson doesn’t have a speech, much to the concern of Thea Rogers, the aide credited with transforming Osborne’s image. (After the election, she will be rewarded with a promotion to Chancellor’s chief of staff.)

Not to worry, Johnson assures her, I won’t speak. But no – the plan is very clear; Osborne and Johnson must say something. Oh well, I’ll busk it, the mayor replies.

“Thea was getting more and more worried, but of course,” a staffer recalls, “he’d got a speech in his pocket prepared.”

This story reveals two underappreciated aspects of the Johnson persona. The first is that, beneath the taste for jokes, there is an edge of what admirers would call rough humour and opponents might call bullying. Johnson has a natural gift for gags and a tendency to use them to wound as well as to amuse. When in the company of Osborne – a corporate rather than a retail politician – Johnson enjoys launching unexpected encounters with passers-by, an arena in which the mayor excels but the Chancellor struggles.

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But the second, and more important, lesson is that Johnson is an “I woke up like this” politician. Think of those celebrities who arrive at a party immaculately dressed, yet claim to have “fallen out of bed”. Just as with them, Johnson’s bumbling and seeming incoherence should not be taken at face value. It takes a great deal of effort to appear so effortless. He is always “thinking of the next move”, in the words of an admirer.

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Observers often underestimate Boris Johnson, and then, on noticing their error, overcompensate. The reaction to his conversion to a Leave vote in the forthcoming referendum was overheated. Some said Brexit was inevitable, or compared the inevitable clash between Johnson and David Cameron to the conflict between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Now as in the years of New Labour’s pomp, there is a consensus in Westminster that the opposition is incapable of supplanting the government, so the focus has moved to the jockeying inside the ruling party. But Brown controlled the Treasury and the contents of the budget. Johnson controls the contents of a single column in the Telegraph on Mondays.

The mayor’s conversion to Brexit might disgust pro-Europeans who recall that the Spectator under Johnson endorsed the Tory leadership campaign of the Europhile Ken Clarke, yet, on its own, it merely upgrades the chances of a Leave vote from non-existent to slim. As far as personalities go, the referendum will still come down to a straight choice between which politician voters find more credible: the PM, or whoever emerges as the face of exit. It is policy, not politics, which threatens the UK’s EU membership.

Until Johnson showed his hand, the only heavyweight politicians the Brexit campaign could call on were the six rogue ministers with a seat in cabinet – Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Priti Patel and John Whittingdale – or Nigel Farage and George Galloway. The ministers backing Brexit, a fellow Tory MP unkindly noted, are the ones people ­“either don’t know or don’t like”.

Johnson is unquestionably in a different class from that ragtag coalition; and most importantly of all, he is a bigger draw on television and radio than Farage, who repels at least as many voters as he attracts. As a senior staffer with the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign observed: “It’s sensible to try to keep Farage away from cameras – but no one’s going to stop him going on TV and no TV producer is going to pass up an opportunity to get Farage on.”

On 21 February, as he announced he was supporting the Leave campaign, Johnson said he would not take part in TV debates, but, inevitably, he will play a large role as the referendum wears on. “He has his Tele­graph column and a feud between him and DC will please the press’s Eton obsession,” a Brexit-supporting MP said.

And if, as many believe, his Leave vote is about securing the Conservative leadership after Cameron, then he will feel compelled to take a starring role. “My instinct is it’s about seeing off Priti,” said one minister, referring to the younger, right-wing MP, who might also run for the leadership. “I don’t think Boris could have afforded for her to have a better referendum than him. So he will have to go all in.”

Pro-Europe campaigners are understandably worried that Johnson, whom some see as the most popular politician in Britain (and who is the only Conservative to win a London administration election since 1977), has come out for the other side. But events, not individuals, remain the biggest threat to Britain’s membership of the EU. A black swan event – a sudden recession, or anything that badly damages the government’s credibility between now and 23 June – cannot be ruled out. Even more catastrophic would be a “black body” event: if many corpses of refugees wash up on the shores of Europe again this summer, that could fuel atavism and anti-migrant sentiment.

For Boris, the outcome of a referendum remains a secondary matter. The loss of his aura of invincibility is less of a threat than it once was, because what used to be his USP among Tories – that he can win elections – is no longer unique. Tory MPs believe the rise of Jeremy Corbyn has left “the laws of gravity suspended”, as one minister puts it. Even assuming a referendum defeat, Johnson will have traded in a debased currency – the ability to defeat Labour – for something rarer: the ability to say he stood shoulder to shoulder with activists in their great struggle.

This article appears in the 24 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash