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Boris, Brexit and the lackluster EU article

It is no great insight to recognise that Boris Johnson is something of an enigma in British politics. His unique appearance, strange eloquence and penchant for controversy have made him stand out amongst our somewhat stale and controversy-shy politicians of the last two decades. He is mocked, but is popular among many, and his ability to seem distinct from the normal rank-and-file of parliamentarian’s means when he says something, we listen.

Johnson’s endorsement of the Leave Campaign came as a shock to many. Having called the EU referendum Cameron probably believed that top Conservatives would fall into line; and most of them did. But Boris was never part of Cameron’s inner circle and so could make up his own mind without jeopardising his job. Boris announced on 21 February that he would go against his party leader and PM to support Britain’s exit from the EU. Instantly people decried the move as cynical and self-serving. What seemed in no doubt, however, was that the Remain Campaign had been dealt a huge blow by being denied Johnson’s endorsement.

Given everything that has happened since the referendum, it appears difficult to cast your mind back to the beginning of 2016. This was a time when Johnson’s position on EU membership was not publicly known. It has come to light that at this time he wrote an article (the full transcript can be found on The Independent website) in which he backs ‘Remain’.

A number of papers (chiefly The Guardian) have seen this as final proof of something that people have suspected for a long time about the messy-haired gaffe-machine; that Johnson has only ever been in it for himself, and himself alone. It is well known among Conservatives that Boris had always coveted the job of Prime Minister. It is therefore logical that the decision to support Brexit was only to further this aim; and now we have proof! Written proof of his genuine ‘Europhilia’ which he cynically suppressed because he cared more about getting to Number 10 than about his belief in the European Union. Sound reasoning, surely?

It is possible, however, that this may be flawed. This line of thought rests on the belief that Boris really supported the EU all along, and that his weeks in the wilderness during February 2016, when he wanted us to think he was wrestling with the biggest political decision of our lifetimes, were actually spent calculating the probability of a major promotion should things not go Cameron’s way. There may have been an element of this. He is, after all, a politician, and has to think about his occupational hazards carefully but I think Boris really did struggle with the decision, and the article itself actually provides a lot of evidence for the case that he didn’t have strong support for the EU to go back on in the first place.

This view is based on the article itself. Firstly, I’m positive that Nigel Farage, or an equally ardent ‘Eurosceptic’, could have composed a more compelling case for staying in the EU. The piece focuses on David Cameron’s 5-point renegotiation and admits that it didn’t demonstrate the EU’s capacity for reform (a central issue of the referendum debate). Not very pro-EU thus far. Secondly, for much of the article Johnson conveys some of the concerns the Leave voters report to have held about the EU (and written in quite passionate terms). He then follows these concerns about sovereignty, democracy, trade, security etc. – which he claims to “perfectly understand, because half the time I have been feeling that myself” – with talk about how Brexit would be “a big thing to do”, and implores people to think about it really hard. Stronger words I’ve never heard.

If you take the few minutes or so to read the article, you’ll also notice that whenever Boris makes a statement that seems pro-EU, it is followed by a significantly larger paragraph espousing a much more eloquent case for Brexit. This seems to indicate the way his mind was going. It’s as if Johnson, even when trying to praise the EU, simply couldn’t bring himself to do it properly or with any conviction. I think this is summed up by the final, lackluster line of a fairly tepid argument for the EU given by Boris; “I am going to muffle my disappointment and back the prime minister”.

Whichever way you voted in the referendum, I don’t think anyone could read this without seeing it as an argument for Brexit – dressed up as an argument for supporting the EU. Notwithstanding his dubious ability as a speaker, Johnson is very eloquent when it comes to the written word; surely he could have put the case better than that if he really believed in the EU.

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