‘Politics is war without bloodshed,’ Mao Zedong once said.
No blood’s been drawn yet, but the Conservative Party is definitely in a civil war.
With the Tory faction evenly divided into ‘Brexit’ and ‘Bremain’ – yes that is a word now – and the army generals not pulling any punches, it promises to be an interesting battle.
On Sunday Boris Johnson announced his decision to break ranks and further stirred the pot the next day when he dismissed David Cameron’s warnings about Brexit as ‘wildly exaggerated’.
The prime minister in turn accused the London mayor of putting his own interests ahead of the country’s by campaigning to leave.
The only problem with this argument is that Cameron can’t really play that card. He wasn’t concerned about British interests when he proposed the EU vote. He only offered it to get Tory Eurosceptics off his back.
‘Kettle? This is pot. You’re black.’
The referendum is rapidly turning into a prestige battle fought over the backs of the British people. It’s political power play in its purest form.
The reluctant Eurosceptic
Cameron isn’t wrong about Johnson’s hidden agenda (though it’s not very well hidden since everyone knows what it says).
It’s no secret Boris is after Cameron’s job and in many ways he doesn’t fit the typical Eurosceptic profile.
Though more sceptical than the PM, Johnson’s previously stated that ‘quitting the EU wouldn’t solve Britain’s problems’ and argued a ‘Leave’ vote could result in the UK negotiating a better deal with the EU.
That’s not really leaving, is it?
He also happens to be the mayor of a city that has greatly benefited from EU membership, which caused Italian journalist Ferdinando Giugliano to comment: ‘Boris backing Brexit is like the mayor of Chamonix [French ski resort] calling for the end of snow.’
So why is Johnson backing Team Brexit then?
It boils down to this: he isn’t pro EU enough to campaign to stay and he isn’t against the EU enough to be passionate about leaving.
I’m fairly certain Johnson would prefer to sit this one out.
But as we’ve seen the issue has split the Conservative Party in half. The EU vote is likely to shape the next Tory leadership contest and this is why Johnson can’t afford to stay silent.
Even if he ends up losing this battle, the war is not lost. Johnson will be left with more allies than if he had chosen no side at all. Especially since his main rivals for the Tory leadership bid are on the opposing side.
A level playing field
What does this all mean for the EU referendum vote on 23 June?
The outcome was always going to be hard to call but Cameron travelled to Brussels knowing he had the bigger names on his team sheet. He probably still has, but it’s now a more level playing field.
Before the ink had dried on Britain’s EU deal, Justice Secretary Michael Gove informed the media of his mutiny plans. Six cabinet ministers in total are defying Cameron, though the PM appears to have channelled his anger at the mayor of London.
It’s not hard to see why.
Iain Duncan Smith, who also backs Brexit, and Michael Gove may be familiar faces but they’re also divisive figures in British politics. They’re unlikely to convince people who don’t agree with them already.
Johnson’s a different story. He’s better liked and his words will influence the undecided. And since it’s an open secret that he’s challenging Cameron to the throne, the Tory leader has seen it fit to take him down a peg.
Given that the information you read about the referendum is already vast and confusing, voters could’ve done without the ulterior motives at play.
When it comes to this referendum neither Cameron nor Johnson has acted in anything other than self-interest. Yet both are now proclaiming to know what’s best for the British people.
The prime minister and the mayor of London only seem to communicate in political doublespeak. Maybe it’s time we stopped listening to them both.
Glenn Fisher, Sean Keyes and I discussed this topic in more detail in Agora Financial’s new talk show, Talking Money.