Boris, Brexit and Cameron’s miscalculation

Published by The Wall Street Journal (3rd March, 2016)

As British Prime Minister David Cameron surveys the political landscape, he has much to savor. Last May he confounded critics who had once dismissed him as a lightweight, a former public-relations fellow with no fixed beliefs, winning an election unexpectedly and shattering his rivals. Former coalition partners the Liberal Democrats were comprehensively rejected and crushed by voters, then the opposition Labour Party lurched into hard-left irrelevance. A nascent insurgency by right-wing populists in the UK Independence Party flopped.

Just beyond the horizon, though, lurks another vote—one that could spell the end of Mr. Cameron’s premiership if he loses. Before the election victory last year, when Mr. Cameron and his Conservative Party seemed likely to have to settle for another coalition, he tried to shore up support on the right by agreeing to hold a national referendum on whether Britain should remain in the European Union. The expectation was that coalition partners would stymie any such vote, but then a coalition wasn’t needed. Now the vote is coming on June 23, and Mr. Cameron surely regrets having committed himself to it.

The referendum is the culmination of yearslong tension among the Tories over Britain’s relationship with Europe. If Mr. Cameron is forced out, he would be the third Conservative prime minister in succession felled largely by this issue.

There is little enthusiasm in Britain toward the EU leadership in Brussels, and much mistrust of Britain’s further integration. Surveys show that two-thirds of voters are skeptical—even though similar numbers acknowledge that the nation’s economy would be harmed by a ‘Brexit.’

Both main parties have been divided on this matter. A Labour prime minister held the last referendum on Europe in 1975, when 67% of the electorate voted in favor. But Tony Blair’s desire to join the euro currency was stopped by his chancellor, Gordon Brown, who was far less enthusiastic about Europe. Yet the Tories have been most tortured; some critics fear loss of sovereignty, some are fueled by libertarian hostility to statism, some distrust foreigners. These fissures undermined the governments of both Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

The biggest problem now is Boris—a politician so well-known his first name is enough for most people. This is London mayor and Tory member of Parliament Boris Johnson, famed for his bumbling style, his self-deprecating wit and fondness for quoting classical aphorisms. He is the only politician in Britain who could get stuck on a zip wire while wearing a suit and turn it into positive publicity. Such is his charisma, I once saw an audience at Downing Street turn away from a speech by the prime minister when Boris walked in, several breaking into smiles as they nudged each other.

Yet behind the charm Mr. Johnson is driven by ferocious ambition—fanned, says his biographer, by seeing a former classmate who was two years behind him at Eton overtake him in their political careers. While the prime minister in recent weeks negotiated a new EU deal for Britain with fellow European leaders, hoping to buttress ‘stay in’ support, Mr. Johnson declined to commit himself to backing Brexit or staying loyal to his leader. Finally Mr. Johnson announced on Feb. 21 that he was in the “out” camp. His move followed another recent blow to Mr. Cameron when Michael Gove, the justice secretary and the prime minister’s friend, also backed Brexit.

The impact of Mr. Johnson’s decision was twofold. First, he adds a serious presence to the Brexit ranks, making them look less like a motley collection of misanthropes, misfits and outmoded obsessives. The pound fell sharply to a seven-year low on the news, underlining both the significance of his decision and fears for stability. Second, the fight over Britain’s place in Europe has been twisted into a personal struggle for leadership of the Tory party.

The stakes over the referendum were already high for Mr. Cameron—it is hard to see how he could stay in power should he lose the vote. Negotiating the departure and striking a new deal with Europe could take at least two years, and few at Westminster think a defeated prime minister would be the right person for the job. Especially one who, as Mr. Cameron announced last year, won’t seek a third term in 2020.

Recent polls show British voters favor staying in the EU by about 10 points. But the public mood is volatile, and a worsening European refugee crisis overshadows the debate. As in America, the electorate in Europe shows a mounting hostility to elites. Danish politicians thought they would win a ballot on adopting some EU rules three months ago, but saw a 20-point lead evaporate and lost.

The four-month campaign in Britain will be a contest between hearts and minds, with those pushing for exit appealing to voters’ instincts and their opponents focusing on jobs and security. It was already a struggle of huge importance for the country and the Continent, in many ways of more psychological than economic significance, since Britain would remain outside the core euro club if it stays in and still be meshed into European rules if it leaves. Now the referendum campaign has turned into a titanic fight between the country’s two biggest political figures, wrestling over the keys to Downing Street. A long-awaited showdown has begun.

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