Boris Johnson wants to be Prime Minister. He also wants his legacy to be secure, and the right one. His great idol is Churchill. What he has done this weekend – in declaring himself for the “Out” side of the UK’s upcoming “Brexit” referendum – compromises his integrity as London Mayor and his potential for building a positive political legacy: all for self-interest to position himself for replacing David Cameron at Number 10 Downing Street.
Everybody knows Labour is in disarray. Whatever Corbyn’s legions of young fans might say, the party is drifting too far to the left to be electable on a national basis. The Tories abandoned the political middle ground in the 1990s and early 2000s, and faced a decade in the political wilderness.
Boris now risks doing the same for the Conservatives; Michael Gove, etc, too. And all the other Eurosceptic Tory MPs backing Brexit, thought to be approaching 150, meaning that the Tory total of 331 MPs in parliament could be split in half.
Boris is still Mayor of London. Most major institutions in the City of London – the world’s biggest financial centre and the financial services driver of the whole country’s economy – have come out in support of staying in the European Union, opposing those who want out via a vote for Brexit (some have held their tongues out of political timidity).
It’s no coincidence that if you possess a university degree, you're much more likely to be pro-EU, versus the less well educated quotient of British society (see this Economist article on academic Cambridge vs poor Peterborough).
To vote for Brexit is to line yourself up with bigoted UKIP and its provincial heartland of desolate seaside towns, stocked with ignorant and resentful old racists, who are as unused to weighing up the economic rationale for EU membership as they are to seeing Black, Asian or Eastern European faces living in their midst.
They’re scared of the world, stoked up by fear mongers writing in the Daily Mail and populist UKIP drivel on immigration, and hark back to some wartime island myth that an isolationist Britain would be better off “standing alone” (cue Farage and “we’ll fight them on the beaches” type UKIP populist rhetoric).
It’s ironic, because Boris is such a fan of Churchill, a dedicated Europhile who in the darkest hours of June 1940 when Britain really did “stand alone” against a continent dominated by a terrifying dictatorial enemy, offered France a political union of the type which so appalls Tory Eurosceptics today. So much for Little Englanders. Of course, France’s chaotic capitulation just days later, with Paris taken, her army beaten, and the subsequent Vichy government’s cooperation with Hitler, scuppered such plans.
“The two governments declare that France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations, but one Franco-British Union,” stated the June 1940 Declaration of Union. “Every citizen of France will enjoy immediately citizenship of Great Britain; every British subject will become a citizen of France.”
Boris knows the value of staying in the EU: for businesses enjoying continued insider access to Europe’s single market; for myriad international trade agreements; and for playing a leading part in European decision-making that otherwise Britain would – to a greater or lesser degree – relinquish by Brexit.
He also knows that the best way to line himself up for Number 10 is to distinguish himself over this issue from David Cameron, becoming the natural leader for the pro-Brexit, Eurosceptic wing of the party. If Cameron loses the referendum, likely set for June 23rd, he will most probably be forced to resign. Boris is lining himself up for this possibility as a cheap political opportunist, knowing he would be the Eurosceptic poster child for leader.
In doing this Boris is certainly acting against the interests of London (still his job). He is also acting against the long-term economic and political interests of the UK. Immigration does – overall – benefit the UK. Immigrants frequently make better workers than unskilled native-born Brits. Putting up barriers to economic migration is the same as putting up regulations to throttle trade and prosperity – something Conservatives frequently (and justifiably) claim is a habit of the protectionist Left.
Even if Boris’s gamble pays off and Cameron loses a Brexit referendum, allowing him to take over as the Conservatives’ party leader, he will face an uphill struggle because he will have torn the party in two before the next election. (Something that will only nullify ground won against Labour, while making SNP seekers of Scottish independence dance for joy.)
Those who inhabit the centre ground help win elections, and too many of those such appealing, moderate Tory MPs are on the pro-EU side of the party. Boris risks sabotaging the long-term interests of the UK – and therefore his own legacy, too – on the strength of his desperately selfish lust to take David Cameron’s job and become Britain’s next Prime Minister.