- Possible Cameron successor among most popular U.K. politicians
- Pound falls, `Brexit' odds cut after Johnson announcement
London Mayor Boris Johnson, one of the U.K.’s most popular politicians and prominent Conservatives, said he’ll campaign for Britain to leave the European Union in June’s referendum, putting himself in direct opposition to his party leader, Prime Minister David Cameron. The pound fell the most in more than a month against the dollar.
“I have decided after a huge amount of heartache,” Johnson told a throng of reporters outside his home in London on Sunday. “I will be advocating Vote Leave, or whatever the team is called, because I want a better deal for the people of this country: to save them money and take back control, I think really this is what this is all about.”
The move is a second blow to Cameron after Justice Secretary Michael Gove, one of his closest political friends, announced on Saturday that he too will campaign for an exit. While Gove, a former Times newspaper columnist, is an accomplished debater, Johnson, known almost universally simply as Boris, is a politician with star power, the author of bestselling books and a popular television performer. He’s among the favorites to succeed Cameron, who’s said he’ll step down as prime minister before the 2020 general election. It means much of the coming debate will be conducted, in public, between members of the governing Conservative Party.
Before the two announced their decisions, the campaign for the June 23 referendum looked like it would pitch Cameron and the leaders of most of the other main political parties against a divided “Leave” campaign whose best-known figure would be Nigel Farage, who heads the insurgent U.K. Independence Party. While Farage energizes some voters, many others are put off by his focus on cutting immigration. Cameron won agreement from other EU leaders on Friday to change Britain’s membership terms.
The prospect of an unprecedented exit from the EU -- a so-called Brexit -- continues to weigh on U.K. assets. The pound fell 1 percent to $1.4258 as of 9:11 a.m. in Auckland on Monday, the most on a closing basis since Jan. 15. It climbed 0.5 percent Friday, the most in more than two weeks, following the EU deal.
One saving grace for Cameron was that Johnson said he wouldn’t take part in any television debates, suggesting he may want a back seat in the coming battle. Still, he’ll be under pressure from his own side to take an active part in the campaign. In his weekly column for Monday’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, Johnson argued that the EU had changed into something that made it impossible for Britons to govern themselves.
“The project has morphed and grown in such a way as to be unrecognizable, rather as the vast new Euro palaces of glass and steel now lour over the little cobbled streets in the heart of the Belgian capital,” Johnson wrote. “Sometimes the public can see all too plainly the impotence of their own elected politicians -– as with immigration. That enrages them; not so much the numbers as the lack of control.”
The danger for the “Leave” campaign of its main protagonists being perceived as fringe figures was highlighted at an event in London on Friday evening, when Farage introduced, as a star speaker, George Galloway, a former member of Parliament who was expelled from the Labour Party for comments he made about British troops serving in Iraq and then formed his own party, Respect. Many audience members walked out, accusing Galloway of being anti-Semitic.
Cameron had made this point at the start of Sunday in his pitch to Johnson to stay on his side. “The prospect of linking arms with Nigel Farage and George Galloway and taking a leap into the dark is the wrong step for our country,” the prime minister said on the “Andrew Marr Show” on BBC Television. “If Boris and others really care about being able to get things done in our world then the EU is one of the ways in which we get them done.”
A telephone poll carried out by Survation on Saturday shows 48 percent of respondents want the U.K. to stay in the EU, compared with 33 percent who would vote to leave and 19 percent who are undecided. In recent months, most phone surveys have shown double-digit leads for remaining in the EU, while online polls have had the race much closer, some suggesting the “Leave” camp is ahead.
“There’s enormous numbers of voters who are not sure what to do in this referendum,” Johnson’s biographer, Andrew Gimson, said in an interview. “Whether this will help them to make up their minds I don’t know. But for people who want to feel good about voting to leave, well, Boris is good at making people feel good about things.”
At the heart of the agreement secured by Cameron is a seven-year “emergency-brake” period during which the U.K. can impose welfare curbs on other EU citizens arriving to work in Britain. Opponents of the deal say it does little to change the U.K.’s fundamental relationship with the bloc.
Bookmakers responded to Johnson’s announcement by cutting their odds of a vote to leave. William Hill Plc, who had been promising to pay 5 pounds for every 2 pounds bet on an exit, now said it will only pay 4 pounds for every 2 pounds wagered. Ladbrokes Plc installed Johnson as the favorite to replace Cameron, in front of Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.
Osborne and two other potential Cameron successors, Home Secretary Theresa May and Business Secretary Sajid Javid, have declared their support for the campaign to stay in. Gove was one of six ministers who announced their intention to campaign for exit at the Vote Leave group’s headquarters Saturday.
Johnson “could become the darling of the Tory Party, or it could be a disaster, and the Cameron-Osborne machine could make him look a marginal figure,” Gimson said. “It’s a gamble.”