David Cameron’s press team must be recovering from the hangover from hell. On the day when media coverage should have been dominated by his historic announcement of the date of the in/out referendum into UK membership of the European Union, Boris dominated the airwaves. The man himself remained unusually mute, but the speculation that ensued is an indication of the perceived political might he could bring to the EU debate. Providing even more of a headache for Cameron, Boris tactically announced his support for Vote Leave in his Telegraph column on Monday 22nd February, allowing him to catapult onto the front page of every major newspaper in the UK. To put this into perspective, the last time all UK newspapers ran the same cover story was following the death of Nelson Mandela. Quite a feat. After this furore has calmed, just what bearing will Johnson have on Britain’s relationship with the EU?
Boris, or ‘BoJo’ to use his popular name, is a rare politician. Most notably, he has first name recognition – a feat usually reserved for the likes of Adele and Beyonce – which stretches his appeal far beyond traditional party boundaries. Only a politician with the popular appeal of Johnson could have the ‘Brexit’ side re-coined as ‘Borexit’, however briefly this may be. The ‘out’ campaign now has a figurehead which is far less divisive than the likes of Nigel Farage and with far more name recognition and respect than Cabinet ministers such as Michael Gove. Advocates of leaving the EU will be hoping this momentum continues up to polling day on June 23rd.
It’s not all plain-sailing for Johnson, though. Given his previously pro-European credentials, many remain sceptical as to whether his ambitions are for the benefit of Britain’s future or his own. If the ‘out’ camp do succeed, in all likelihood, Cameron will resign as Prime Minister on June 24th, leaving the keys to Number 10 firmly within Boris’ grip. Relations between Cameron and Johnson have never been plain-sailing, dating as far back to their encounters at Eton. Competition between the two appeared to have eased following Cameron backing Johnson to be the Conservative candidate for Mayor of London in July 2007, however the longstanding fissure between the two appears to have re-opened irreversibly.
It does, however, remain incredibly hard to predict just what impact Johnson will have on the outcome of the referendum. Whilst he does have vast popular appeal, the electorate may not be willing to back him on such a fundamental change for the UK’s international relations. If his rhetoric is seen as incoherent, voters may consider his personal career ambitions to be the thinly-veiled motive behind his positioning within this important debate. This could do more damage than good if seized upon by campaigners for remaining in the EU. That said, Boris’ seemingly irresistible appeal and ability to manoeuvre out of tricky situations relatively unscathed could make this argument difficult to translate to voters.
Boris is clearly not declaring all-out war on the Prime Minister, having conceded that he will not debate members of his party on live television (not that Cameron would ever have agreed to this). Regardless of whether or not the UK votes to remain within or leave the EU, Boris has positioned himself to be Cameron’s successor, with the majority of Conservative Party members now self-defined Eurosceptics.
With Jeremy Corbyn’s questionable conviction behind the ‘in’ campaign and the Conservative Party split to the core on this fundamental issue, the referendum campaign has certainly become less clear-cut than once thought. Boris’ decision caused the pound to hit a seven-year low. SNP murmurings of a second independence referendum being triggered following a vote for exit will only become louder following this interjection. Whatever the result in June, the make-up of British politics looks likely to dramatically change in 2016.