Boris's Blond Ambition Overshadows EU Exit Debate

Britain's EU debate risks becoming more about party ideology than the nation's relationship with the Continent.

The man who would be king. Or at least Prime Minister.


Mayor of London Boris Johnson has had "more positions on Europe than the Kama Sutra," says Liberal Democrats leader Tim Farron. Perhaps that's a little unfair. Johnson, who once said his policy on cake was "pro having it and pro eating it," may have been careful to sit on the fence in the EU debate until now, but through most of his journalistic career, he was an arch euroskeptic.

Still, the weekend decision by Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson -- BoJo to his acolytes, Boris to just about everyone else -- to campaign for Britain to leave the European Union is in keeping with the key characteristic that's defined the old Etonian's political career: naked Machiavellianism.  

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More importantly, it risks turning the EU debate into an amplified version of the Conservatives' long-running internal ideological battle, distracting from the very real issue of what kind of relationship the country wants to have with its Continental neighbors. With his party torn, Boris may be tempted to focus more on seducing his fellow Conservative lawmakers, who will select the candidates party members will vote for in the leadership election, than the substantive issues.

In some ways, Boris is a British version of Donald Trump, albeit with a smaller bank account and a vastly superior vocabulary. Shock of blond hair with a life of its own? Check. Able to connect with disgruntled voters by seeming to ignore political norms and boundaries? Check. As ambitious as an X-Factor wannabe popstar? Check. A distinct lack of policy rigor that's evidence of either intellectual flexibility or a fondness for populism? Check.

Getting Boris on board is a huge coup for the anti-EU campaign. A poll earlier this month suggested Boris is second only to David Cameron in how influential politicians will be in determining the outcome of the June 23 referendum:


Indeed, the pound weakened by its most in almost seven years Monday morning as traders bet that his Sunday announcement makes an exit from the bloc more likely.

What makes him such a threat to Prime Minister David Cameron's attempts to keep Britain in Europe is his ability to speak directly, as he did in his regular column published by the Daily Telegraph Monday, to the mistrust many EU voters currently feel toward the bloc's increasingly centralized decision-making:

That is what we mean by loss of sovereignty – the inability of people to kick out, at elections, the men and women who control their lives. We are seeing an alienation of the people from the power they should hold, and I am sure this is contributing to the sense of disengagement, the apathy, the view that politicians are "all the same" and can change nothing, and to the rise of extremist parties.

And yet, his weekend comments suggest a man also eyeing his own place in history:

I don’t see how, having worried about this issue for quite so long and having fulminated for quite so long about the lack of democracy in the EU, I can pass up the only chance any of us have in our lifetimes to put an alternative point of view.

No matter which way Britons vote in June, Cameron -- who promised British voters before the last election to step down before the next one -- is likely to resign soon after, paving the way for the Conservatives Party to choose a new leader. That person will also serve as prime minister, at least until the electorate gets its say in the 2020 election.

So the EU campaign gives Boris an opportunity to put clear blue ideological water between himself and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. Until now, the bookmakers have made Osborne the frontrunner; but Boris's weekend maneuvers have put him ahead with some oddsmakers and level with others. If Boris's EU gambit is designed to boost his own career prospects, so far it's working.  The prospect of the two leading candidates fighting to head the party, after being on opposing sides of the EU debate, undermines Cameron's efforts to use the referendum to heal the divisions between europhiles and euroskeptics. 

How much influence Boris's views will ultimately have on the EU vote remains to be seen; a lot can happen between now and June 23. But his decision to break with the prime minister is likely to have a lasting effect on his party. Cameron took a gamble in promising to hold a referendum on Britain's EU membership, mostly to stop his own Conservative Party from tying itself in knots over the issue as it has done for years. Boris's intervention makes it less likely that the party can heal itself whatever the outcome.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.