Britain’s troubled relationship with the EU has provided Boris Johnson with nothing but fun since he first made his name lampooning the federalist ambitions of Jacques Delors as the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent in the early 1990s.
“Everything I wrote from Brussels I found was sort of chucking these rocks over the garden wall and I listened to this amazing crash from the greenhouse next door over in England,” he explained mischievously on Desert Island Discs in 2005.
His stories, including a completely fictitious account of plans by the European commission to blow up its asbestos-ridden Berlaymont HQ, turned London’s mayor into something of a folk hero for Eurosceptic Tories.
Now, for the first time in his career, Europe has become a deadly serious matter for Johnson as the clock ticks down to the contest to succeed David Cameron as leader of the Conservative party. As the prime minister prepares to outline his negotiating demands at an EU summit in December, Johnson must decide whether support for the in or out campaign would best serve his interests in the all-consuming battle of his career: ensuring that a contemporary who failed to win election to Pop, Eton’s elite club, is not the only Etonian of his generation to make it to No 10.
The overwhelmingly Eurosceptic Conservative party is likely to respond well in the leadership contest to candidates who campaigned to leave the EU. But the contest will take place at least two years after the referendum; a pro-EU victory for Cameron could leave opponents of the EU badly exposed.
Johnson is holding fire at the moment and making no decisions on which camp to join as he gives the prime minister space to negotiate. But in his speech to the Conservative conference he gave a pretty clear signal that he is leaning to the out side when he said that free movement of people – one of the EU’s founding principles which allows EU citizens to travel and work freely – needs to be on the table.
Downing Street has concluded with reluctance that free movement must be left largely untouched, a point made by Philip Hammond a few hours after Johnson’s speech when he said that it would be “very, very difficult” to amend such an important principle of the EU. As a Brussels veteran, Johnson believes the prime minister should be far bolder in his demands.
He explained to Cameron after his Bloomberg speech in January 2013, where the prime minister committed himself to holding an in/out referendum, that EU leaders will sit up and take notice if they believe that one of the “big three” is prepared to walk.
It will also not have escaped Johnson’s attention that a growing number of cabinet ministers have flirted with the anti-EU side. At a summer birthday party for the arch Eurosceptic home office minister John Hayes at Shepherd’s restaurant in Westminster three cabinet ministers – Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid – all made speeches which made clear that their hearts at least are on the out side. Hayes is a founder of the Cornerstone – dubbed Tombstone – group of socially conservative Tories which gave Cameron a significant boost in the 2005 leadership contest after backing him when he agreed to pull his party out of the centre-right EPP grouping in the European parliament.
As members of the cabinet committee on the referendum, Duncan Smith and Javid say they are working hard to ensure a successful negotiation. Johnson faces no such constraints and is free to talk to the anti-EU side. Early last month he met Dominic Cummings, Gove’s former special adviser, who is the Brexit group’s campaign director.
Aides say that Johnson’s decision to meet Cummings, an old friend, should not be seen as a sign that he will join the Brexit campaign. But Johnson is interested in a proposal by Cummings for two referendums to be held on the EU. A vote to leave the EU in the first referendum, Cummings suggests, should not be seen as a definitive rupture and could actually end up strengthening Britain’s hand in negotiations to establish a new grand bargain with the EU. This would then be approved in a second referendum.
Johnson may also have considered that an out vote in a first referendum would probably end David Cameron’s premiership, allowing a new leader to pick up the pieces.
The London mayor highlighted his interest in the Cummings idea during his Call Boris phone-in on LBC on Wednesday. “If you vote against the treaty now, against the package now, it is by no means the end of the story because you then have to have [a] renegotiation,” he said. “You then have to have a conversation about what bits Britain might stay in.
If political pressures in the Tory party are pushing Johnson in the out direction, then family, friends and social links pull him in the opposite direction in favour of a vote to stay in the EU. One of Johnson’s oldest friends – fellow Eton King’s Scholar Hugo Dixon – is one of the main intellectual driving forces behind the pro-EU camp.
Dixon, who founded the Breakingviews financial website, first met Johnson at Ashdown House prep school in East Sussex in the 1970s. From there they both won King’s Scholarships to Eton where Johnson’s famously lackadaisical approach – he failed to prepare his speech – led them to lose the house debating competition.
Dixon has forgiven, if not entirely forgotten, the debating society episode from the early 1980s and is a lifelong friend of Johnson’s, according to the mayor’s biographer Andrew Gimson.
The cerebral and softly spoken commentator is now a member of a formidable array of pro-Europeans who are bending Johnson’s ear as he calculates his next moves on the referendum. This group includes their Oxford contemporary and millionaire supporter of the Yes campaign Roland Rudd and Johnson’s sister-in-law Shirin Wheeler, a former Brussels-based BBC journalist who left to work for the European commission.
The opposing sides in the EU referendum are both wooing Johnson who may well be a full member of the cabinet by the time the vote is held. Johnson knows that he will have to endorse one side or the other when the prime minister eventually concludes his negotiations. This could see him fighting on the other side to Cameron, a move that will be easier if the prime minister allows ministers to follow their conscience.
As he ponders his next move, one ally says Johnson faces no dilemma about which side to join in the referendum campaign. “Boris just needs to make sure he is on the winning side,” they said.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010