Boris is a dimming star in the Brexit debate

Published by The ipaper (16th May, 2016)

Last week, the former Prime Minister Sir John Major made one of his sporadic sallies back into the political fray, warning that Tory campaigners for a Brexit risked ‘morphing into Ukip’, such was their desperation to win the fight. Now Nigel Farage has underscored this claim in an emphatic style by backing Boris Johnson for prime minister, telling The Mail on Sunday that he was a ‘fan’ of the former London Mayor and would happily work for him.

The Ukip leader did not hold back when praising the favourite to succeed David Cameron as Tory leader. ‘I love Boris, respect him, admire him,’ said Farage. Such adoration from this source shows the veracity of Major’s claim that having lost the economic arguments the ‘Outers’ risked creating long-term divisions with xenophobic rhetoric. Yet it also highlights in a harsh light how far Johnson has moved to the right in his lust for power, looking like a political chancer who will say and do anything to land the top job.

This is depressing. Johnson once rightly sought an amnesty for illegal immigrants, and only 18 months ago he insisted that politicians should argue that migration benefited Britain as he called for a ‘welcoming policy’ towards those wanting to work here. Now the man who was Mayor of a city revived by so many arrivals from abroad complains about ‘uncontrolled’ incomers and condemns Cameron for misleading the public, winning fulsome support from a rival party fuelled by hostility to free movement, modernity and globalisation.

And with each day, it gets worse. He has already flip-flopped on a range of issues, each opportunistic twist and careerist turn shredding his credibility slightly more. Two years ago, he claimed the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership was a ‘great project’, saying that its critics were ‘left-wing misery guts anti-globalisation campaigners’. Last week, he flirted with their side in his fervour to attack trade deals negotiated by Brussels, leaving his fellow Tory MP Nicholas Soames to accuse Johnson of lacking any coherence.

It has become obvious that those seeking a Brexit have no clear vision of what it would mean for Britain. So now Johnson compares the European Union’s aims to those of Hitler, saying that both sought to unify the continent under a single authority. He talks of a ‘massive democratic void’ – yet such childish absurdities, combined with inconsistency and abuse of this issue for his own ambitions, aid the swell of contempt for politicians.

Both camps are treating voters with disdain, given some of the silly claims being made. But at least most of those making them actually believe in their cause. Johnson, for all his entertaining charm and jocularity, seems diminished so far in this debate with so much at stake. Bluster and bombast is fine in small bursts, but wilts under such an intense spotlight.

I suspect that the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, was not the only viewer to conclude that he was floundering in the first television interview after he announced his stance. ‘Not sure the bumble-bluster, kitten smirk, tangent-bombast routine is cutting through,’ she tweeted. Then his breezy assertions during a grilling by the Treasury Select Committee led to criticism from its chairman for ‘a busking, humorous approach to a very serious question for the United Kingdom’.

It was not much better listening to Johnson interviewed by John Humphrys last week on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, dismissing evidence that immigration gives an economic boost and saying he had no regrets about calling Barack Obama a ‘part-Kenyan President’. No wonder he is so popular with his new pals in Ukip, although it is sad to see this optimistic character fall in with the pessimists’ party.

Most tellingly, Johnson did not deny rumours that he wrote two newspaper columns in March announcing his decision – one backing Brexit, another supporting staying in the EU. Clearly he is not a conviction politician, otherwise this choice would have caused fewer agonies. Yet the real question is whether he has any convictions at all – beyond an innate belief that he should rule the country. It is all very well waving pasties and cracking gags on a (German-built) battle bus. But he does not look like a leader. And it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he is being overtaken as a political force by Michael Gove, his fellow Brexiter and a man of fierce beliefs.

Gove lacks the popular appeal of his blonde colleague; it is hard to envisage him getting stuck on a zip wire in his suit and turning it into a positive photo opportunity. Yet such is his articulacy and passion that he is the opponent said to be most getting under the Prime Minister’s skin in this debate. Johnson topped a monthly poll by the Conservative Home website asking who should be next Tory leader back in March, but the Justice Secretary now has twice as much support as anyone else – while the former Mayor has slumped into fourth place.

Gove insists he has no desire to be party leader; he has told me this several times. There has been a push to make him deputy prime minister after the referendum to bring the sides together – an increasing challenge for the Conservatives given the growing ferocity of the fight. Who knows what the fallout will be after 23 June? So much depends on the result. Yet Cameron fears he will be succeeded by a Brexiter. And at this stage Johnson, for all his drive and potency, seems a dimming star.

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