Boris throws a wrench in Cameron’s plans to avoid an EU Brexit

“While par­ents wor­ried … we were bang­ing on about Europe”

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents -

Not quite a year ago, Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron achieved the im­pos­si­ble and won a ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment. It’s a small ma­jor­ity, but the in­ter­nal bat­tles of the Labour op­po­si­tion have left the im­pres­sion that Cameron is dom­i­nant in Bri­tish pol­i­tics. So it’s sur­pris­ing that he might have to re­sign in June. If he does, he’ll have been forced out not by a ri­val or by a scan­dal, but by the mis­fir­ing of a three­year-old gam­bit of his own mak­ing.

Europe has been the is­sue that’s caused the Tories the most dif­fi­culty ever since a fight over the ex­tent of Bri­tish in­te­gra­tion into the Euro­pean Union helped bring about the fall of Mar­garet Thatcher in 1990. Suc­ces­sive lead­ers were ei­ther cho­sen for their pu­rity on the is­sue—less Europe, which was Thatcher’s stance—or un­der­mined for their lack of it. By 2005, when Cameron took the job, it was im­pos­si­ble to be elected leader with­out mak­ing at least some noise about dis­tanc­ing Bri­tain from the EU.

Amid this ide­o­log­i­cal de­bate, the pub­lic turned its back on the Tories. It wasn’t, Cameron ar­gued in a 2006 speech, a co­in­ci­dence. “While par­ents wor­ried about child care, get­ting the kids to school, bal­anc­ing work and fam­ily life, we were bang­ing on about Europe,” he told his party. For the next four years, as party leader he fo­cused the Con­ser­va­tives on do­mes­tic is­sues, with enough suc­cess that he be­came prime min­is­ter in 2010, end­ing 13 years of Labour rule.

Cameron had moved on, but his party hadn’t. For years, a group of anti-eu ac­tivists dom­i­nated the Con­ser­va­tives’ in­ter­nal process of pick­ing can­di­dates for seats in Par­lia­ment. While Cameron threw the oc­ca­sional Brus­sels-bash­ing bone to eu­roskep­tic MPS, it wasn’t enough: They de­manded more re­stric­tions on EU pow­ers.

Hence the prime min­is­ter’s 2013 gam­ble. In an ef­fort to sat­isfy his own side, he promised a ref­er­en­dum on leav­ing the EU by the end of 2017. Cameron’s hope was that this pledge would get him through the 2015 elec­tion with­out more re­bel­lions or any de­fec­tions by mem­bers of Par­lia­ment to the anti-eu U.K. In­de­pen­dence Party. He failed on both counts.

His fur­ther cal­cu­la­tion was that, if he was still in of­fice af­ter the 2015 elec­tion, he’d be able to se­cure suf­fi­cient con­ces­sions from his EU part­ners that a risk-averse Bri­tain would vote to keep things as they are. “While many Bri­tish are euroskep­tics, they also ap­pear deeply anx­ious over the per­ceived risks of Brexit,” says Matthew Good­win, a pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of Kent, us­ing the short­hand term for Bri­tain’s pos­si­ble exit.

A ma­jor­ity vote for stay­ing in the EU still seems likely. Cameron may have mis­read the sit­u­a­tion in his party, though. The Tory MPS, de­spite their tough talk on Europe, were ex­pected to fall in be­hind their prime min­is­ter and cam­paign to stay in the EU. But since he an­nounced on Feb. 20 that a ref­er­en­dum would come on June 23, around half of them have said they’ll cam­paign against him. Worse, among the rebels are one of his old­est political friends, Jus­tice Sec­re­tary Michael Gove, and one of Bri­tain’s most pop­u­lar politi­cians, Lon­don’s Tory mayor, Boris John­son. John­son’s an­nounce­ment of his sup­port for Brexit trig­gered a drop in the pound

to its low­est level in seven years, as traders sized up the pos­si­bil­ity that Cameron might lose. “Cameron’s not ex­actly renowned for hav­ing his fin­ger on the pulse of his par­lia­men­tary party,” says Tim Bale, a pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics at Queen Mary Univer­sity of Lon­don.

The mayor, uni­ver­sally known as Boris, is a me­gas­tar who op­er­ates in a dif­fer­ent space from mere prime min­is­ters. With his shaggy hair, ten­dency to lapse into Latin, and care­fully bum­bling self-dep­re­cat­ing man­ner, he’s man­aged to es­cape scan­dals, both political and sex­ual, that would de­stroy any­one else. Hav­ing said as a child that he wanted to be “World King,” the ex-reporter has mod­er­ated his am­bi­tions. If any­one was un­cer­tain about them, his lat­est best­selling book is a study of an­other mav­er­ick for­mer jour­nal­ist who went on to lead his coun­try, Win­ston Churchill.

It re­mains to be seen if John­son can win vot­ers to the Brexit camp. “Cameron will warn that leav­ing would be a leap in the dark, and the trou­ble is that Boris quite likes leaps in the dark and tak­ing risks,” says An­drew Gim­son, John­son’s bi­og­ra­pher. “That doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make peo­ple feel safe.” Few Lon­don­ers know what their mayor does, and it’s been John­son’s good for­tune to be in charge at a time when the city has en­joyed a run of suc­cesses, in­clud­ing the 2012 Sum­mer Olympics. Cameron re­mains the se­ri­ous leader, ar­gu­ing that he’s mo­ti­vated solely by what’s in the na­tion’s in­ter­est—un­like, goes the un­spo­ken sug­ges­tion, the am­bi­tious John­son.

Polling ev­i­dence on how the vote will go is un­clear. Some show the two sides neck and neck; oth­ers show a clear ma­jor­ity of Bri­tons vot­ing to stay in the EU. All the polls have shown a move to­ward the “leave” side in re­cent weeks. The dif­fer­ences among the polls may re­flect the pub­lic’s lack of en­gage­ment with the ques­tion: The EU is some­thing about which few Bri­tons care deeply.

If Bri­tain votes to leave, it’s hard to see Cameron stay­ing on as prime min­is­ter. Even if the na­tion votes to stay, the first days of the cam­paign have shown how deeply the is­sue of Europe con­tin­ues to af­fect the Con­ser­va­tive Party. It sug­gests that op­po­si­tion to mem­ber­ship con­tin­ues to be a re­quire­ment for a Tory leader. That’s a big prob­lem for Cameron’s fa­vored suc­ces­sor, Chan­cel­lor of the Ex­che­quer Ge­orge Os­borne, who’s cam­paign­ing at his leader’s side. It’s clearly an op­por­tu­nity for John­son. �Robert Hut­ton

“While many Bri­tish are euroskep­tics, they also ap­pear deeply anx­ious over the per­ceived risks of Brexit.” ——Matthew Good­win, Univer­sity of Kent The bot­tom line The Con­ser­va­tives are set for a lead­er­ship fight af­ter the Tory mayor of Lon­don breaks ranks with the prime min­is­ter.

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