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25 February 2016

Leader: The case against Mr Johnson

As much as Mr Johnson might wish otherwise, this referendum is about more than him.

By New Statesman

It is a dismal paradox that Boris Johnson’s decision to support the campaign to leave the European Union simultaneously makes him more likely to become prime minister and demonstrates his profound unsuitability for that office. On 21 February, the Mayor of London ended weeks of well-stoked speculation over his position on the EU referendum by standing before a confected media scrum outside his London house and extemporising his confected ideology: democracy, sovereignty, trade.

The mayor’s true guiding principles can be captured by a different trio of words: Boris, Boris, Boris. There is a simple reason that Mr Johnson has opted to back the Leave campaign. When David Cameron retires before the next general election, his successor will be decided by party activists and members rather than solely by MPs, thanks to a rule change that took effect in 2001. Previous Tory prime ministers have stepped down midterm but their replacements have been chosen by elected MPs. The overwhelmingly Eurosceptic Conservative grass roots, rather than the wider electorate, will decide our next prime minister and Mr Johnson is out to win their hearts.

As much as Mr Johnson might wish otherwise, this referendum is about more than him. On 23 June, the country will choose between significantly different visions of Britain’s place in the world. The Prime Minister’s renegotiation was always a sham that failed to address legitimate concerns about the EU’s engorged bureaucracy, undemocratic institutions and occasional hostility to domestic social democracy. Although almost the entire Parliamentary Labour Party is supporting the Remain campaign, MPs such as Gisela Stuart are making a left-wing case for Brexit with rigour and verve.

However, in our view, those arguments are trumped by the security offered by the EU in a world that is becoming hostile in new and complex ways. Russia lurks menacingly to the east and Vladimir Putin would cheer any further disunity in Europe. China’s global ambitions are unpredictable, at best. Populism and nationalism are prospering across the world, not least in the guise of the preposterous Donald Trump. The crises in the Middle East and the Syrian tragedy have destabilised Europe, creating the worst refugee crisis on the continent since the end of the Second World War.

At such an unstable time, we need multilateral alliances more than ever: not just the EU but Nato, too. Further European political and economic integration would be unwelcome (and is, now, unlikely because of Mr Cameron’s renegotiation) but the project of cross-national harmony forged in the embers of war has been a noble success.

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Nevertheless, the public deserves to hear the case for exiting the EU made with clarity. That is not well served by a campaign incorporating the populist nationalism of Nigel Farage and the irrational ranting of George Galloway. Nor is it well served by having as Leave’s most prominent advocate a politician whose principles are made of wind.

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Boris Johnson’s vacillations contrasted markedly with the conduct of the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, who forewarned the Prime Minister of his desire to back Brexit and released a dignified statement soon after Mr Cameron returned from Brussels with a deal.

Mr Johnson, on the other hand, dispensed contradictory signals for months, assiduously encouraging speculation in order to inflate the significance of his decision, then reportedly informed the Prime Minister of his choice by text message just minutes before he addressed the media.

Mr Johnson is a clever and witty man who writes an entertaining newspaper column and middlebrow books. He has long invited us to laugh at him and this has deflected criticism from his character flaws. Now he must be scrutinised. His record as Mayor of London is lacklustre. He has pursued vanity projects, such as the New Routemaster bus and the Garden Bridge, at the cost of grappling with the social problems afflicting many. He has a much longer record of erratic judgement and underhand dealing in his personal life. And now, when the United Kingdom, the country he professes to love, is faced with existential threats at home and abroad, he has opted for expediency over sincerity. 

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