Boris Johnson


The jokes about the EU trying to ban British sausages owe a lot to the time that Boris Johnson spent as the Telegraphís Brussels correspondent. Yet to many people he moved to celebrity status during his time as editor of the Spectator when he was a regular guest on the satirical current affairs quiz Have I Got News For You. He enter parliament as the MP for Henley, but resigned on becoming Mayor of London, during which time he led a successful Olympic Games. He returned in 2015 to parliament as MP for Uxbridge while serving out his terms as London Mayor and sitting in on David Cameronís political cabinet.

When the referendum campaign officially launched on 20 February 2016 members of the cabinet were finally free to campaign for leave and six cabinet members rushed to a re-launch of Vote Leave. Johnson was not among their number, as he had not yet decided on which side to campaign. When he finally announced for leave it was interpreted that this was a tactical decision in the battle to replace Cameron as prime minister, as Johnson was not known as a leave supporter. This meant a major boost in publicity for leave due to Johnsonís celebrity status, but it was also distracting as the media focused on the clash between Cameron and Johnson, rather than on the referendum. When the result came in as a leave victory Johnson appeared at a press conference with his co-lead in the campaign Michael Gove. Both of them seemed to be stunned that not only had they won, but Cameron had resigned. Johnson then disappeared from public view until his weekly Telegraph article appeared in the Telegraph, which appeared to suggest that Johnson was not really a supporter of leaving the European Union. So in the leadership campaign his campaign manager Gove stood against him at the last minute and Johnson withdrew. When Theresa May became prime minister she gave Johnson the important role of Foreign Secretary.

Johnsonís campaigning for leave seemed to be a collection of photo opportunities more akin to an election campaign and the suspicion was that he was not really wanting leave to win. He went on the Vote Leave bus to tour the country in the company of Vote Leave chair and Labour MP Gisela Stuart.

Boris Johnson is a larger than life character who sums up much of why it is so hard to many definitive claims about what led to the result on 23 June 2016 when the British electorate voted for the leave cause he espoused, but he seemed to be more than a little disturbed to have ended up on the winning side. During the phoney war period prior to the elections that distracted most politicians Johnson was Mayor of London, although he did not appear to be distracted from the business of fronting, but not leading, the Vote Leave campaign.Ironically he was less evident in the campaign after the election and his successor Sadiq Khan switched to being the more active, although he was representing Britain Stronger In Europe. Yet Johnson dominated the news as he was the standard story that the mainstream political media were interested in. It was to Vote Leaveís credit that they sidelined Johnson at a relatively early stage, unlike Britain Stronger In Europe who failed to curb the upfront role of the deeply unpopular David Cameron and George Osborne until it was too late to save their campaign.

Johnson attended the elite school Eton College at the same time as David Cameron and they were at Oxford University together, but although they appeared in a group photograph of the notorious Bullingdon Group Johnson and Cameron were never friends. Johnson, Cameron, and Osborne all entered parliament in 2001, but whereas the latter two had previously worked as parliamentary assistants, Johnson had gone into journalism. Indeed part of his popularity derived from his appearances on the satirical news quiz when he was journalist, and later editor, at The Spectator. In political circles Johnson was better known as the most deeply eurosceptic member of the British press in Brussels, when he was the correspondent for the Daily Telegraph (1989-1993). His articles came at an important time for the Conservative Party as it happened as Margaret Thatcher fell from power as she turned eurosceptic and failed to bring her europhile cabinet with her. John Major succeeded her as prime minister, but he struggled against a rising eurosceptic wing that opposed his support from the Maastricht Treaty (1992) that would create the European Union (1993) out the pre-existing European Economic Community. This was also a time when the United Kingdom Independence Party was formed (1993) primarily by those who quit the Conservative Party over Majorís support for the Maastricht Treaty. Despite his early prominence in Conservative euroscepticism Johnson was considered relatively europhile both as MP for Hendon (2001-2008) and as Mayor of London (2008-2016). Even when Johnson began fronting the Vote Leave campaign he was dogged by accusations of being a europhile and only campaigning for leave so that he, and not Osborne, would succeed Cameron as prime minister.

The day before Cameron flew out to the crucial renegotiation of the United Kingdomís membership of the European Union he took the unusual step of summoning Johnson to a meeting in Downing Street (the prime ministerís official residence). That shows the importance that he placed on Johnsonís ability to dominate the news, but it is unknown what transpired at the meeting. It is widely held that Cameron sought to persuade Johnson to declare for the remain campaign, but Johnsonís at times half-hearted campaigning raises the issue of whether he was being persuaded to campaign for leave and draw attention away from more convinced eurosceptics such as Justice Secretary Michael Gove and Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith. Cameronís renegotiation took place on the Wednesday and Thursday and he wanted the cabinet to meet on the Monday, but leave supporting cabinet members successfully pushed for a Friday cabinet meeting, so that campaigning could begin that weekend. Six cabinet members left that cabinet meeting to go to a re-launch of the Vote Leave campaign, but Johnson did not declare for the leave campaign until Sunday. The precise reasons for that delay are unknown, but maybe delay was all that it was about. Cameron had met Johnson the day before the Brussels renegotiations and possibly Cameron asked that whatever the decision Johnson took the weekend to decide so that he would prevent Vote Leave from gaining an early advantage in the campaign that Cameron had wanted to launch after a weekend to recover from the summit. The media spin was that Johnson was weighing up which side would best guarantee his aim to succeed Cameron as prime minister, with the conclusion that he chose to be a gallant loser on the side of Vote Leave in the hope of impressing the predominantly eurosceptic voting members of the Conservative Party, who would choose the next leader. It is even possibly that Cameron encouraged the gallant loser approach in an attempt to divert attention from Gove, whose campaigning skills Cameron was rumoured to fear. Or maybe Johnson was just wanting to hog the headlines and had decided long ago that he would support the leave campaign that he had in part inspired with his European Commission mockery a quarter century earlier.

The media contention that Johnson was running a leadership campaign rather than a Vote Leave was given credence by the early campaigning, which largely consisted of photo opportunities of Johnson in various locations, while Gove stood rather awkwardly in the background. Of course the choice of which images appeared on the television was made by the media, so those images may have been chosen to suit their agenda, rather than what Johnson sought to achieve.

So why did Johnson withdraw from the leadership campaign? The media presented it as undoubtedly his devastation at Goveís betrayal, but then that same media had treated Gove as Johnsonís sidekick in reporting their early Vote Leave campaigning, so it could be presented as a three way Conservative leadership battle between Johnson, Cameron, and Osborne. There are plenty of other possible interpretations of his shock withdrawal with the key Brexit related one being that the reaction to his Telegraph article accusing him of trying to remain in the European Union despite leaveís referendum victory. That may have made him realise that he would forever have to argue that he had been genuine in campaigning for Vote Leave, and he was not to know that it would be one of the remain campaigners, Theresa May, who would become leader. Goveís statement that Johnson was not a suitable leader may have been related to his less than certain devotion to the leave cause or it may have been his lackadaisical approach to preparing a leadership campaign. There are other possibilities that may have led Johnson to be advised that he had no hope of succeeding in a leadership campaign, despite his undoubted celebrity status. He may have been warned that having got rid of Cameron the Conservative Party was in no mood for replacing him with another Old Etonian. Or possibly he was warned that too many enemies had been made both in his Telegraph days in the Maastricht era and in his Vote Leave campaigning. He may have worried that his rather colourful private life would become a campaign issue. It may simply be that he had no heart to replace Cameron, who he had backed for the leadership in 2005 and had pleaded with to not resign if remain lost the referendum. My guess is that he came to realise that he was not at present leadership material, with his tendency to ad lib responses as if he was appearing on an episode of Have I Got News For You. His time as Foreign Secretary may help him to prove towards the more measured gravitas that will help him prepare to succeed May, but the look of confusion when he had to welcome the leave victory suggests that he was not, despite media reporting to the contrary, envisaging becoming prime minister as soon as 2016.

The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and in a sense in which they voted to leave a euro Union. Of the 28 countries in the European Union 19 are already in the Eurozone, 7 are committed to working towards adopting the euro, and only 2 are exempt from joining the euro: Denmark and the United Kingdom. The worldís third and sixth largest economies are in the euro, respectively Germany and France, while the United Kingdom as the fifth largest economy has retained its own currency. Among the 7 countries who are outside the Eurozone but committed to join (Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Poland, Romania, and Sweden) there is a strong support for the United Kingdom remaining within the European Union as it is a very powerful voice for those outside the Eurozone. Nevertheless a European Union committed to having most members in the Eurozone could benefit greatly from the United Kingdomís departure. The euro has been in crisis since the global economic collapse in 2008 and although Ireland has recovered well the southern European states remain in difficulties. A major problem for the Eurozone is that it is trying to have one currency for multiple economies with only limited shared policy making. The move to shared policy is heavily resisted by the United Kingdom because it means changes being made from which it cannot benefit because of its retention of sterling as a currency. A shared currency can only prosper if other items are shared, but this is hindered by a situation of some countries in the European Union sharing the euro and some not sharing it. The creation of the euro was part of the move towards ever closer union and only made sense within the context of all European countries moving in the same direction, but with first the United Kingdom and later Denmark gaining exemptions from the euro the single currency begins to look like a mistake. By creating the single currency and not signing up all member countries to it the European Union created a structural weakness in both the union and the currency. The easiest way to fix the problems with the euro would be to allow the United Kingdom to depart and consider where that leaves Denmarkís membership due to the euro exemption they were given to get the Danish populace to support the Maastricht Treaty at the second time of asking.

This raises the issue of the status of the financial power house that is the City of London. Many of its major players warn that they might leave for the Eurozone if the United Kingdom departs the European Union. Yet that begs the question as to why financial institutions were basing their access to the European single market outside the Eurozone. The saying having their cake and eating it comes to mind. As the Eurozone sets its financial house in order it is likely that pressure will increase for those institutions to move within the Eurozone and such a move has been mooted by the major euro powers of France and Germany. Voters in the United Kingdom could choose to remain within the European Union in order to preserve the golden egg that is the City of London, but find that foreign financial institutions leave anyway because the United Kingdom loses its lustre as a European base because of its exemption and long term intentions to remain outside the Eurozone. On the other hand it may well be that those financial institutions have little interest in being based in a country signed up to an insecure currency and that a post-Brexit City of London would continue to be the most promising European base due to the solidity of sterling.

There is an argument that the crisis in the Eurozone was created by its coming into being. Once poorer parts of the European Union came under the same currency as the wealthy German banks there was the possibility of loans that were previously unobtainable. This worked to the benefit of both the governments of those states and the shareholders of the German banks. That ability to tap into German credit was a large contributing factor in the success of the Celtic Tiger blossoming of the Irish economy. The problem was that those economies were unable to cope with the stresses caused by the financial collapse in 2008 and this presented a huge problem of contagion for Germany due to the exposure of its banking system to now tottering economies. So the European Central Bank pursued a policy of austerity in those countries to place the emphasis on them paying back German banks rather than having the crisis spread to the Eurozone and European Unionís economic powerhouse. Being part of a single currency limits the options that those poorer economies have to survive and austerity became the method largely because the strict rules for Eurozone economies left so few other options. Lessons have been learnt, but they are difficult to implement while austerity continues to punish those economies that have already suffered the worst impact, especially in relation to unemployment. Maybe if there was not a large economy outside the euro it would be easier to find a way to stabilise the Eurozone and as the United Kingdom is unlikely to join the euro it might be best if it left the European Union.

© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved