quarta-feira, 25 de maio de 2016
Boris bumbles at Brexit debutante ball
Boris bumbles at Brexit debutante ball
Former London mayor backed Out to grease path to Number 10. But strange things happened on the way to coronation.
By TOM MCTAGUE 5/26/16, 5:33 AM CET
LONDON — Over the last eight years at London’s City Hall, Boris Johnson built a reputation as a modern, serious and open-minded politician in tune with the changing world.
In barely eight weeks on the Brexit campaign trail, Johnson has damaged, if not shattered, that cultivated image. His transition from the mayor’s office to national politics is best known so far for missteps, gaffes and underwhelming results. No one’s counting out the ambitious politician from the longer race to lead the Conservative Party, but this wasn’t how the Boris coming out party was supposed to go.
When Johnson emerged from his north London home on Sunday February 21, scrunching his unruly mop of hair as he addressed the media scrum to announce his bombshell decision to throw his weight behind Brexit, it was seen as a win-win. If Britain voted for Brexit, Prime Minister David Cameron would resign and Johnson would reign triumphant. If the Leave campaign lost, the majority of deeply Euroskeptic Tory party members would see him as a principled hero. Either way, he was setting himself up well to be Britain’s next prime minister.
This campaign has turned him from a guy whose appeal is broader than the party to a guy confined to the party.
His decision sparked fury at Number 10 and caused the pound to plunge. Since that winter Sunday, Cameron’s campaign to remain in the EU has stormed into a commanding 14 percent lead in the polls. The former London mayor is left to rail about EU banana regulation and compare the ambitions behind the European project with Hitler’s Germany.
“The danger is in two months he’s undone what he did in two terms as mayor to increase his popularity and credibility,” one long-standing admirer said. “As somebody who is deeply loyal to him, that’s what I find depressing about the stance he’s taken on Brexit.”
With only a month to go until the June 23 referendum, Johnson is struggling to articulate a case for leaving that elevates him above loveable gags or the Tory right’s fondness for rather dry arguments about sovereignty. His supporter added: “Boris’ great appeal and the reason he was reelected in London is that his appeal transcended the rather narrow ranks of the Tory party. But in an odd way this campaign has turned him from a guy whose appeal is broader than the party to a guy whose appeal is almost confined to the party.”
The source, who did not want to be named because of his continuing loyalty to the former mayor, said Johnson’s crack last month that President Barack Obama’s “part-Kenyan” heritage gave him an “ancestral dislike of the British empire” was particularly damaging. It allowed people to think — wrongly — that Johnson had a racist streak, he said, adding that “the whole thing was pretty awful.”
For some of his allies, the Kenyan episode captures a problem Johnson created for himself by backing Brexit. “Boris’ whole thing is authenticity, but everybody knows Boris doesn’t believe in pulling out of the EU,” said another senior Tory.
As the campaign goes on, Johnson risks losing the credibility that his supporters say sets him apart from the rest. Without it, he is just another posh white man who went to Eton wanting to run the country.
Johnson’s immigration trap
Johnson’s closest allies say he decided to campaign to leave the European Union because he couldn’t stomach the claim Britain was unable to thrive on its own. But he has had particular trouble rebutting the Cameron camp’s arguments about the economic risk of leaving the EU.
The pollster Andrew Cooper, who was Cameron’s director of strategy at Number 10, said those concerns are central to undecided voters, who make up around a quarter of the electorate. “They are defined by the fact that they are risk averse. They want facts. They want serious arguments. They want substance,” Cooper said. “They want credible reasons to think it will be OK so they can vote with their hearts to leave.
“What he is doing — the language he is using — he is simply talking to their hearts and that’s not enough to switch them,” he added. “They agree with him and they will cheer him for saying it, but that’s not enough to get them to leave the European Union.”
“In London it was a completely opposite persona to what he is doing now in the referendum, which does beg the question – will the real Boris Johnson please stand up?” — the pollster Andrew Cooper
For Cooper, Johnson has if anything had a negative impact on the Leave campaign. “During the time he’s been going round the country on a bus the Remain lead has clearly been going up, not down.”
The influential pollster — a key figure in the Conservative “modernizing” camp that backed Cameron’s bid to overhaul the party’s image — said Johnson’s problems would only deteriorate as the campaign wore on because the Leave camp would have to focus on immigration. “They basically have to keep going back to immigration because that’s the only strong argument they’ve got,” he said.
Cooper’s analysis is supported — albeit for different reasons — by the UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who has publicly defended Johnson. Speaking with POLITICO, Farage said the debate would soon turn to immigration. “I think the issue about controlling our lives will, in the end, come down to control of the borders. If the Leave campaign can make that argument powerfully enough the other side cannot fight back against it.”
The trouble is Johnson the mayor was never anti-immigration. As Cooper put it: “In London it was a completely opposite persona to what he is doing now in the referendum, which does beg the question: Will the real Boris Johnson please stand up?”
The allegation that Johnson does not really back Brexit goes back to the days he was prevaricating about which side he was on. To his accusers, he put his ambition to be prime minister above the interests of the country. Even after declaring for Brexit he appeared to leave the option open of a second renegotiation and referendum in which he could support a vote to remain. Cameron rubbed salt into the wound last week by claiming Johnson had told lots of Conservative MPs that he was not an Outer.
Question marks over his motivations appear to have undermined his support in the Conservative Party and the general public. In the last poll of Tory members on who should be the next leader, Johnson slipped to fourth. His pro-Brexit ally, Justice Secretary Michael Gove, jumped to the front of the queue. Even Home Secretary Theresa May, who is campaigning for a Remain vote, now sits above him in third place.
“He could be destroying himself as a serious figure, but that’s why we’re watching — it’s dangerous. He’s on a zip wire and he’s not even tied on.” — biographer Andrew Gimson
The senior Tory source said Johnson’s lack of seriousness has also been exposed. “When you are at the top of politics like the prime minister or chancellor or home secretary then everything is tested — everything you say — and that is a new experience for him and he’s been found wanting, very obviously.”
The accusations of Johnsonian unseriousness aren’t new. “All of the people who have always dismissed him as a clown and a buffoon are now saying it all over again,” his biographer Andrew Gimson said.
Gimson warned the dangers to the former mayor’s career were serious, but also that he should not be written off yet. “The more establishment figures like Cameron and [former deputy prime minister Michael] Heseltine line up against him, the more a certain type of free-born Englishman will say ‘good for Boris.’”
Once detailed memories of the campaign have faded, voters may well remember Johnson standing up to an American president who told Brits how to vote in their referendum, he added. “He could be destroying himself as a serious figure, but that’s why we’re watching — it’s dangerous,” Gimson said. “He’s on a zip wire and he’s not even tied on.”
The Conservative MP James Cleverly, a close ally who worked with the former London mayor in City Hall before entering parliament last year, said Johnson always proved doubters wrong. “It’s an argument that keeps being replayed and it’s an argument that keeps being wrong,” Cleverly said. “He shows over and over again that he can be himself and still maintain that balance between being credible and being popular.”
A landslide for Remain could leave lasting damage. “I think it’s a legitimate concern that being on the losing side of this argument will dent that history of being successful against expectations,” Cleverly said. “It would be naïve not to acknowledge that.”
“He’s an affable, benign Donald Trump.”
Another Conservative MP, a close ally of the former London mayor, said the sniping at Johnson was simply a ploy to undermine his leadership chances. He’s competing foremost against Cameron’s preferred successor, Chancellor George Osborne. “This is the stuff pumped out by the George Osborne lot who say what you really need is something very boring. We tried the George Osborne-type campaign in London and look what happened,” said the MP, who asked to remain anonymous. “The reality is Boris has done a pretty good job on the campaign — he’s stimulated people up and down the country. How many people does George Osborne pull in when he gets off a coach?”
In the end, the MP added, Johnson will be judged on his record as a cabinet minister when, as expected, he is promoted after the referendum in a “unity reshuffle.” “The best way for Boris to answer his critics is if the PM sticks to his word and gives him a big job to deliver in that job.”
He said Johnson retained far more appeal than any other Tory MP and this would be crucial after nine years of Conservative-imposed austerity, and many MPs would support him simply to stop Osborne, the face of that austerity. “The easiest people to recruit are the Stop George camp — it’s pretty big. I don’t know if Boris Johnson will be leader of the party, but I bet my house on it that it won’t be George Osborne.”
A source in Vote Leave agreed that the sniping at Johnson exposed concerns in the Remain campaign about the former mayor’s support. “The level of personal abuse from Number 10 just shows how worried they are by Boris. When you’re on the road with him it’s clear that he just has a different effect on people.”
One man’s gaffe
People in the Leave campaign accept mistakes have been made but insist that trying to control him would backfire. Johnson also privately says that what Westminster insiders believe to be “gaffes” only serve to help people remember his interventions.
The consensus in the media was that he undermined a serious speech on Britain’s future outside the EU by being goaded into singing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in German by reporters. Johnson believes it will only cement the memory that he is no little Englander in people’s minds, people close to him say.
Johnson’s camp argue that the referendum campaign has essentially boiled down to “the people versus the establishment” and that he is on the right side of the fence, regardless of the result. He will always be able to say he stood up for the ordinary voter whose heart wanted to leave.
The former London mayor is a great admirer of Ronald Reagan — the great optimist and joker who made America feel good about itself.
Johnson, a cultured classicist and liberal intellectual, now finds himself drawing less favorable comparisons with another Republican TV star turned politician. Cameron’s former pollster Cooper said that, like Donald Trump, Johnson is popular because he is so unlike other politicians. “He doesn’t behave like a politician, he doesn’t talk like a politician, he doesn’t look like a politician — and nobody likes politicians.
“He’s an affable, benign Donald Trump.”
Whether this carries Johnson to the highest office remains to be seen. Johnson should certainly not be written off. But his road to Number 10 looks significantly more winding than it did when he stood outside his front door and declared that “with a huge amount of heartache” he was backing Brexit.