Cover Story: Brexit

Absolutely Boris

James Astill is the Washington bureau chief and Lexington columnist for The Economist. He is a contributor to Open
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The man chiefly responsible for Britain’s decision to leave the European Union would probably prefer it to remain

IF BORIS JOHNSON really wants Britain to leave the European Union, which I strongly doubt, the former mayor of London and de facto leader of the ‘Leave’ campaign was an awfully late convert to the cause. On the eve of announcing his decision to campaign for ‘Leave’, last February, he wrote two drafts for his weekly newspaper column, one arguing for ‘Leave’, the other for ‘Remain’. Having promised his masters at the Daily Telegraph an exclusive account of which way he would jump, he had suddenly to decide which side to back. Most of those who knew him, including me, thought he would choose ‘Remain’.

Though he had grumbled about the EU for years (as a Brussels correspondent for the same paper, Boris had made a career out of peddling exaggerated stories about its power hunger and bureaucracy), he had often said privately that he was not in favour of leaving the European club. He once told me so categorically, during a chat in his Thames-side mayoral office. Yet, as his decision-point approached, with the referendum to determine Britain’s European future four months away, Boris had been trying out some increasingly Eurosceptic language. Fearing he was about to plump for ‘Leave’ after all, his closest relatives and friends besieged him with entreaties to think again.

Most, if not all, of them are committed Europhiles, which reflects the metropolitan, liberal circles in which Boris moves. His father, Stanley, formerly worked at the European Commission; his youngest brother, Jo, a fellow Tory politician (and former Delhi correspondent of the Financial Times) has written sympathetically about EU reform. His sister Rachel, another journalist, spent several hours haranguing him to stick with Remain on the morning of his announcement. All the Johnsons are former Brussels residents and fluent French speakers (not that you would guess it from the cod English accent Boris affects while pronouncing French words). A friend who saw both drafts of Boris’ column allegedly advised him that the pro-Remain one, in which he argued that the economic costs of Brexit did not justify the joys of freedom from the EU, was the more convincing one by far.

But Boris chose to file the other one—and in that moment, as it has turned out, he put Britain on a supremely dangerous path. For the sake of personal ambition, the overriding factor, I am sure, in his decision to ignore the advice of cooler heads and the relative merits of his own arguments, he has helped dash Britain’s political and economic stability and imperilled its territorial integrity. David Cameron, the Tory prime minister, has resigned; Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, is barely hanging on. As the pound and FTSE index have dived, Britain’s credit rating has been downgraded and a recession predicted. In Scotland, which voted to ‘Remain’, nationalists are rallying for a renewed push for independence; in Northern Ireland, Catholic Republicans, who voted ‘Remain’, are again at the throat of their Brexit-seeking Protestant neighbours. Globally, at the time of writing, $3 trillion has been erased from stock markets in a general post-referendum plunge. This is not a propitious base from which to launch a campaign to succeed Cameron as prime minister.

It might seem unfair to load so much responsibility for the Brexit debacle onto one thatch-haired politician. Britain’s vote to leave the EU on 23 June was a product of deep socio-economic pressures in British society. To some degree, it reflected the nostalgia for national greatness that some Indian commentators have been quick to diagnose; that spirit is clearly apparent in the presumptuous way some Eurosceptic Tories speak of forging alternative trade agreements with other Commonwealth countries, including India. Yet, a far more important impetus for Brexit was the anti-establishment feeling of working-class Britons, victims of mechanisation and globalisation, who have seen their living standards decline for two decades. The biggest determinant of a Brexit voter was not the presence of nationalist sentiment, but the absence of a university degree. The fact that almost every part of Britain’s economic elite—the City of London, CEOs of big companies— warned against Brexit made the promises its champions offered all the more alluring to these down-in-the-mouth British voters. The referendum result was in this way the electoral accident that all put-upon Western democracies have been waiting for. It is a warning-sign of the much bigger disaster that would be a victory for Donald Trump, propelled by much the same constituency and forces, in America’s presidential election in November. Yet, given the narrowness of the result—a 52:48 vote for ‘Leave’—it is safe to assume it would not have happened but for Boris.

Before he added his considerable heft to the ‘Leave’ campaign, it was divided between two feuding factions, lacked a coherent argument or popular leader, and was trailing by double digits in the polls. Its only charismatic figure, Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, had been unable to win a seat in parliament. By contrast, in Boris, the only British politician known—affectionately, by and large—by his first name alone, the Brexit cause had suddenly Britain’s most popular politician.

Boris put Britain on a supremely dangerous path. For the sake of personal ambition, he has helped dash Britain’s political and economic stability and imperilled its territorial integrity

An entertainer and television personality, Boris has constructed a buffoonish, often hilariously funny, public persona that cuts through the hostility most Britons reserve for their politicians. His best jokes, at a time when most Britons would struggle to name half a dozen cabinet ministers, are widely remembered. Thus for example his “policy on cake”, which is, “pro having it and pro eating it”. Or his assurance that “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts”. Or his coining of the phrase ‘Ajockalypse Now’, ahead of last year’s general election, to describe a panicked fear that the rise of the Scottish National Party could cause a constitutional crisis. Or my personal favourite, Boris’ quip that he found the ties his socialist predecessor, Ken Livingston, had forged between London and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela “absolutely Caracas”. He is a funny guy. But wit alone does not explain the political potency of a Tory who, though himself an Eton-and Oxford-educated product of the reviled establishment, has won successive elections in London, a Labour Party bastion, and now this more momentous democratic victory.

In May, Boris ended his second term as mayor with an approval rating of 54 per cent. That was a decent measure, after eight years in a big political job, especially as he had left hardly any mark on it; Boris replaced one sort of London bus with another, talked a lot about new bicycle lanes, and that was about it. His solid ratings seemed as much as anything an expression of personal liking for the outgoing mayor. Even against their better judgment, and despite his well-publicised history of bad behaviour, of broken promises and messy affairs, voters warm to him. In his shambling, eccentric demeanour—imagine a cross between Billy Bunter and Worzel Gummidge, with a dash of Winston Churchill—they find authenticity.

That is not wholly absurd: much of Boris’ act is rooted in reality. He is genuinely absent-minded. While campaigning in Cheltenham last year, he mistakenly referred to the local Tory candidate by the name of a local estate agent, whose signboards he had seen planted around the town. He is also plain-speaking, to a point, being impatient with political correctness (jokes about bossy Germans are one of his stocks-in-trade) and, it must be admitted, likeable. For a man who is often said to be propelled by ruthless ambition, Boris comes across, in public and privately, as puppyishly eager to please—and British voters, fed up with creaseless, humourless, professional politicians, love him for it. “Boris Johnson!” a heckler yelled out at one of his rallies, in working-class east London, “You’re a cunt, but I love ya!”

Boris loves to be liked. He also needs to be even more than most politicians—which is a big reason why he backed ‘Leave’. Though he is far more bookish and cerebral than he lets on, happily for his Tory colleagues, he is also a good deal less clubbable, which makes him an indifferent political operator. A year into his second spell in parliament, Boris is not well-known or especially liked among Tory MPs. George Osborne, the chancellor of the exchequer and his main rival to succeed Cameron (or, at least, he was a rival until the referendum result changed everything), has none of Boris’ popular appeal but many times his Machiavellian nous. Boris’s plumping for ‘Leave’ was in part a response to that shortcoming. It was an effort to curry favour with Eurosceptic Tory colleagues, whose support he would need to make the short- list in any Tory leadership election, and also with the wider Tory party membership, who pick the leader from that list. Boris’ calculation, I suspect, was that only by punting for ‘Leave’ could he woo the Tory rank-and-file on the issue the British public cares about most—immigration.

The likeliest scenario, for now, is that Britain will indeed exit the EU and its richly-rewarding free trade arrangement, and that it will be poorer off for it

A metropolitan liberal, devoted to economic and cultural openness, he is a big fan of it himself. As mayor of London, he also represented a city that has thrived because of immigration; over a third of Londoners are foreign-born. But London, which voted heavily to remain in the EU, is not Britain. Boris discovered that, if he did not know it already, while delivering a speech at the 2013 Tory annual conference, in which he ventured a guarded contrast between the industrious eastern Europeans upon whom many British service industries rely with their less motivated British peers. It was met with stony silence from a crowd of Tory activists—electors of the party’s next leader—whose love Boris had been accustomed to count on. So he changed his tune.

A year later, Johnson decreed that Cameron must secure a British opt-out from the EU’s principle of free movement of people, ahead of the In-Out referendum the prime minister had promised to hold. “This border controls thing is critical. That is now emerging as the number one thing we need to sort out.”

This was fair enough, at the time. As one of the EU’s strongest economies, with an accessible Anglophone culture and traditional openness to migrants, Britain has seen a historic influx in recent years. Largely because of immigration, its population grew from 57 to 65 million between 1990 and 2015; last year, 630,000 foreigners settled in Britain. For the most part, this movement has been harmonious. Yet it has sparked a nativist pushback. Immigration is blamed for some related problems, such as squeezed public services in places with high population growth, and other problems, such as generally poor wage growth, for which it is a convenient scapegoat. Around 80 per cent of Britons want to see immigration cut. That is a preponderance to which any self- respecting politician must respond.

Which is why Cameron tried, in his renegotiation effort, to secure for Britain an ‘emergency brake’ on immigration from the EU: it would have given him the right to suspend the EU’s freedom of movement after a certain target number of immigrants had been reached. But his fellow European leaders, led by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said ‘no’. Cameron felt he had no choice but to accept that answer and campaign to stay in the EU anyway: to leave the EU would be to risk losing the benefits of the EU’s single market, which looks almost too costly to contemplate, as the current turmoil for British stocks and the pound is indicating.

But Boris, with his desire to be loved, could not accept that: there must be border controls. At the same time, because he could not quite contemplate exiting the EU’s free trade zone, he clung to a fantasy that Britain could retain the access to the single market that membership of the club confers nonetheless. He said as much on 27 June, in a post-referendum newspaper column that sought to downplay the post-referendum chaos and deep rancour, in Britain especially, it has caused. ‘There will continue to be free trade, and access to the single market,’ Boris assured his readers. And yet, meanwhile, ‘the government will be able to take back democratic control of immigration policy.’ He could not be faulted for consistency, at least. After a renegotiation process that had pushed the EU’s leaders to the limits of their tolerance for British exceptionalism, and a referendum campaign that had bitterly divided Britons, Boris still wants to have his cake and eat it.

Perhaps he will end up getting his wish. He is, alongside Theresa May, the shadow home secretary and a lukewarm Remainer, a strong favourite to become Britain’s prime minister. Entrusted, then, with working out a solution to the mayhem the referendum has caused, he might even have a chance of bending Merkel and other EU leaders to his will. They are urging Britain to get out before the uncertainty it has caused for the union creates further fractures. But none has an interest in a messy split; perhaps they will be prepared to work out a compromise, one that preserves Britain’s access to the single market, or even its EU membership, while also allowing more of the border controls, starting with Cameron’s emergency brake, that Britons demand. Such a solution, which could mean that Brexit never actually happens, is increasingly under discussion in Westminster. Another would-be prime minister, Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, says that whatever new arrangement Britain negotiates with the EU should be approved at a second referendum. That sounds a bit like an argument for re-running the first one.

Then again, such a felicitous outcome still seems unlikely. European leaders are reluctant to offer concessions to Britain that other member states—several of which have anti- immigration movements of their own—would promptly lobby for. And even if they did offer Britain improved membership terms, it is far from clear that British voters would be prepared to accept them. An elite stitch-up to keep Britain in the EU does not seem like an inappropriate response to last week’s anti-establishment rush for the exit. The likeliest scenario, for now, is therefore that Britain will indeed exit the EU and its richly-rewarding free trade arrangement, and that it will be poorer off for it. That is not something Boris ever wanted or, it seems, seriously anticipated as the logical outcome of the victory he campaigned for. It is a shame. It was stupid of him. His behaviour appears contemptibly self-serving and naive. But if Boris does make it to 10 Downing Street, he will be the prime minister charged with cleaning up the messy fallout from this calamity. He would at least have deserved that honour.