Boris Johnson to Oppose Cameron on EU Membership Vote, BBC Says

  • London Mayor expected to announce decision to join exit camp
  • Cameron says U.K. will be `safer, stronger' within EU

Boris Johnson, the last senior figure in Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservative Party still to declare which side he’ll join in the campaign to decide the future of the U.K.’s membership of the European Union, will support leaving the bloc, the BBC reported.

Johnson will announce his decision later on Sunday and give his reasons for it in his column for the Telegraph newspaper, the BBC reported, without saying where it got the information. Earlier, Cameron started selling his deal on Britain’s membership to voters with a direct appeal to London’s mayor.

“I would say to Boris what I say to everybody else, which is that we will be safer, we’ll be stronger, we’ll be better off inside the EU,” Cameron told BBC Television’s “Andrew Marr” show Sunday, a day after announcing the U.K. will hold a referendum on EU membership on June 23. “You boil it down to if you love this country, and I love this country so much, and you want what’s best for it.”

Boris Johnson and David Cameron
Boris Johnson and David Cameron
Photographer: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Cameron is struggling to prevent his Conservative government from fracturing after securing an agreement with fellow EU leaders overhauling the terms of U.K. membership. Following an emergency cabinet meeting Saturday, six ministers said they’d defy him and campaign to leave, among them Cameron’s long-time friend and ally, Justice Secretary Michael Gove.

All eyes are on which way Johnson will jump. A popular figure with voters -- who mostly know him by his first name -- and the politician who won the mayorship in the Labour-leaning U.K. capital for the Tories twice, Johnson is seen as potentially the most influential “Brexit” campaigner should he choose to back the Out camp. An Ipsos Mori poll on Feb. 17 found he’s second to only Cameron when it comes to influencing whether voters choose to stay or go. He is also, alongside Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, one of the favorites to succeed Cameron as prime minister.

Johnson’s sister, Rachel Johnson, told Sky News he faces “an enormously complicated decision.”

A 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.

Pound Pressure

Given his popularity, Johnson’s support for either side may prove key to the performance of sterling during the campaign, according Morgan Stanley. Should he choose to publicly back the campaign to leave, a so-called Brexit, “the pound should come under immediate pressure,” analysts led by Hans Redeker wrote in an e-mailed report Friday.

“If Boris and if 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,” Cameron told the BBC.

The political and economic stakes for the U.K. are rising as campaigning begins for the June referendum. With markets already braced for volatility, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon upped the ante Sunday, telling the BBC that a U.K. vote to leave the EU without Scotland’s backing “would trigger a demand for a second Scottish referendum.”

The Conservative candidate for London Mayor Zac Goldsmith will vote to leave the EU, according to the BBC.

Economic Turbulence

Business Secretary Sajid Javid, previously seen as wavering over which way to vote, threw his support behind the campaign to remain. Writing in the Mail on Sunday newspaper, he said the economic risks of leaving were too great in the current climate.

“In recent months, we have once again seen storm clouds gathering over the global economy,” he wrote. “The fallout from a ‘leave’ vote this summer would only add to economic turbulence that is, quite possibly, about to engulf the world. Some have even warned that Brexit could precipitate the total collapse of the EU, and while I know that many might welcome such a prospect, the shockwaves could prove catastrophic in the current climate.”

The referendum will revisit the question of the U.K.’s membership of the EU that was last put to voters in 1975, two years after Britain joined the bloc, then known as the European Economic Community.

Security Risks

Work & Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith told the BBC that staying in the EU would make the U.K. more vulnerable to Paris-style terrorist attacks due to “the lack of any control on our borders” associated with membership of the bloc.

That view was at odds with his cabinet colleague, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who wrote in The Observer that the U.K. is safer as a member of the EU “because, when it is in our national interest, we can work with other countries to fight cross-border crime and terrorism, which will enhance our national security in a dangerous world.”

Home Secretary Theresa May, who was previously seen as wavering over which way to vote, also came out in favor of remaining in the EU on Saturday to protect against crime and terrorism.

Cabinet Split

Within minutes of Cameron’s announcement Saturday of the date of the referendum, several ministers were pictured at a rally by Vote Leave, one of several groups campaigning for an EU exit. As well as Gove and Duncan Smith, they included Chris Grayling, the leader of the House of Commons, Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, Culture Secretary John Whittingdale and Employment Minister Priti Patel.

They were given a free hand by Cameron to campaign against the government’s position after a cabinet meeting Saturday.

The cabinet is “going to stay friends” and “respectful of the Prime Minister,” Grayling told the BBC in an interview Sunday. He said Cameron quitting in the event of a vote to leave would be “absolutely the wrong thing to happen,” since “the last thing we need at the end of all this, whether we vote to leave or whether we vote to stay, is a political bug-bath. We’ve got a good team, that team needs to carry on and do what the country asks us to do.”

Late Friday, several rank-and-file Tory lawmakers addressed a rally by Grassroots Out, another group campaigning for an exit, alongside U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage and Respect Party leader George Galloway.

“I think 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,” Cameron told the BBC.

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