By design, a referendum is about people, but the June 23 vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union has become more about the gladiatorial contest between two high profile friends-turned-rivals and the Conservative party’s unity.
Is popular London mayor Boris Johnson using the referendum to position himself as the next Conservative leader before the 2020 general elections? Many think so, particularly given his long-held pro-European Union views until now.
On Sunday, Johnson, 51, surprised one and all by joining the Brexit camp, not through his usual lovable buffoon-type performance before the media, but in a turnout and exposition seen as prime ministerial. He is also the MP from Uxbridge and South Ruislip.
With Johnson ranged against his fellow Etonian and Oxford friend, Prime Minister David Cameron, who with his “heart and soul” wants Britain to remain in the EU, the referendum has become more personality-driven than about arguments on either side of the divide.
Johnson’s position on the EU question is vital, partly because he is mayor of the capital of global finance, but also because polls suggest people will be most swayed while voting by the positions taken by Cameron and Johnson.
After Cameron set out his pro-EU stall over the weekend, Johnson rustled up a media scrum outside his north London house on Sunday to announce his pro-Brexit position, and followed it up with an exposition of his reasons for doing so in his Monday column in The Telegraph.
Johnson wrote: “There is only one way to get the change we need, and that is to vote to go, because all EU history shows that they only really listen to a population when it says No…It is time to seek a new relationship, in which we manage to extricate ourselves from most of the supranational elements.”
Johnson, a former Brussels correspondent for The Telegraph, wrote: “I am a European. I lived many years in Brussels. I rather love the old place. And so I resent the way we continually confuse Europe – the home of the greatest and richest culture in the world, to which Britain is and will be an eternal contributor – with the political project of the European Union.”
He added, “It is, therefore, vital to stress that there is nothing necessarily anti-European or xenophobic in wanting to vote Leave on June 23.”
Cameron’s cabinet is already split, with six ministers joining the Brexit camp, including high profile justice secretary Michael Gove (a close friend of Cameron) and minister of state for employment Priti Patel.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour party that is openly pro-EU, calmly remarked Cameron securing a deal from Brussels had more to do with dealing with opposition from within the Conservative party.
There are already reports the Conservative party is split at the grassroots level, with many local party associations favouring a Brexit but their respective MPs wanting to remain in the EU, or vice-versa, reflecting the referendum’s very real implications for the party’s unity.