Blips, blunders and bluster… has Boris lost it?

Published by The Mail on Sunday (22nd May 2016)

When he announced he was backing Brexit, there was jubilation among those wanting out of the European Union, and despondency in Downing Street.

For Boris was the joker in the political pack. He has been called ‘the Heineken Tory’, who reaches parts of the electorate that other politicians cannot reach with his wit, his bumbling charisma and crumpled style.

Yet as heat rises in the hard-fought referendum debate and support for staying in seems to harden, there are growing whispers at Westminster that Boris’s support may be backfiring on the Brexit cause.

His stuttering campaign has been scarred by a series of blips and blunders, whether invoking the Third Reich or offending the US President, and undermined by his backsliding comments and backfiring quips.

One prominent anti-EU campaigner told me that he winced whenever Boris appeared on television screens, comparing the EU to ill-fitting underwear and claiming it had banned shoppers from buying bananas in bunches of more than three.

The Remain side also believe Boris, for all his undoubted popularity, actually makes the case against Brussels less credible, adding to confusion over what claims of ‘sovereignty’ might mean for post-Brexit Britain.

‘He is getting lots of attention but it’s not exactly positive, is it?’ said one key source. ‘He’s doing their campaign and himself damage. You look at him and think the gags are funny but do you really want this guy running the country?’

And there’s the rub. For the reality is that Boris – who admits to ‘a healthy dose of sheer egomania’ – is fuelled by personal ambition, rather than heartfelt resentment to Brussels felt by many of his new allies on the nativist Right.

He wants desperately to be Prime Minister – and is using this crucial debate for our country to further his personal cause.

He does not even deny being so torn by the decision over which side to join that he wrote contrasting versions of his Daily Telegraph column revealing his position in March. Indeed, he has admitted in the past ‘my preferred option is for us to stay in’ and was reported earlier this year to have told fellow MPs ‘the trouble is, I’m not an Outer’.

Perhaps this explains why three months ago he said departure from the EU would only distract the Government during several years of ‘fiddly’ negotiations – then just weeks later told radio listeners a deal could be done ‘very rapidly indeed’.

Boris admitted last year that if Britain left the EU ‘we wouldn’t be able to stick up for what we believe in’, there would be ‘penalties’ and there was ‘the Scottish factor’, with expectations of a consequent vote for independence north of the border.

This lack of deep belief in Brexit may explain why he resorts to such silly inflamed rhetoric, making offensive comments about ‘part-Kenyan’ Barack Obama and comparing the EU – a group of democratic nations – with Hitler’s dictatorship.

It is hard to quibble with his former mentor Lord Heseltine, who condemned Boris’s ‘preposterous’ remarks and suggested his ‘judgment seemed to be going’.

The result is that he seems to be sliding across the political spectrum, losing support of party moderates who once admired his optimistic outlook, while failing to win over many hardliners on the Right suspicious of his motives.

Back in March, Boris topped a monthly poll by the influential Conservative Home website on who should be next party leader. Now he has slumped into fourth place, even falling behind Liam Fox.

He crumbled when challenged by ITV’s Tom Bradby over his battle bus slogan that the UK sends £350 million each week to Brussels – a central claim of the Brexit brigade, although the real figure is £161 million. ‘Yes, we do get some of it back,’ he confessed.

Meanwhile, flip-flopping on issues such as immigration, where once he called for ‘welcoming’ policies but now harrumphs about ‘uncontrolled’ numbers, won him adoring support from Ukip leader Nigel Farage in this newspaper last week.

And showing off with an offensive limerick about Turkey’s president for a magazine may have won £1,000 and amused some schoolboys, but writing crude lines such as ‘There was a fellow from Ankara, who was a terrific wankerer’ does not seem the deed of a potential PM. His bluster, bombast and bonhomie works brilliantly in small bursts, but shrivels in the spotlight of such an important debate.

Boris is far from a busted flush. He remains the bookies’ favourite to succeed David Cameron as Tory leader. He could still prove decisive in this debate.

Yet there is growing confidence in the Remain camp that they are set for victory – and while Boris’s cavalier style can be attractive, it is worth remembering the Roundheads eventually won the Civil War.

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