Boris Johnson is a slippery fish, but I don’t think Nick Cohen quite captures him in his blog post earlier today. To accuse him of putting career before country in the EU referendum campaign, as Cohen does, is to fall into the trap of viewing politicians too dichotomously, as if they’re all either men and women of conviction or unprincipled opportunists. Boris, like every front rank politician, is a mixture of conviction and careerism, rather than one or the other. Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher are both cases in point.
Exhibit A in the case for the prosecution is Boris’s decision to join the Leave campaign. Like many divisive political issues, the people lined up on each side have difficulty imagining that their opponents could possibly be motivated by anything other than stupidity or venality. Thus Cohen, a committed Inner, dismisses out of hand the notion that Boris could be guided by a high-minded concern for the national interest – that’s completely inconceivable to him because he believes so passionately that Britain’s interests are best served by remaining in the EU. Consequently, Boris must be entirely self-interested – the same charge the Prime Minister made in the House of Commons today. It’s nothing to do with issues like parliamentary sovereignty or democratic accountability. No, it’s all about Boris’s leadership ambitions. ‘Johnson believes in the advance of Johnson,’ writes Cohen. ‘That’s all there is. There’s nothing else’.
Cohen goes on to repeat the smear, emanating from Downing Street, that Boris gave no hint of his Eurscepticism before his dramatic declaration last night. Okay, he admits, he ridiculed the EU as the Telegraph’s Brussels’ correspondent in the late 80s – a stance that earned him the title of Margaret Thatcher’s favourite journalist – but he discounts this on the grounds that Boris didn’t believe what he was writing.
To which the obvious retort is, ‘How do you know?’ He claims that when Boris became an MP in 2001 he presented himself as a liberal Tory who was ‘actually quite Europhile’, but on what grounds does he take Boris’s cosmopolitanism at face value but dismiss his Euroscepticism as make believe? Does Cohen have a special window into Boris’s soul?
A more reasonable interpretation is that Boris feels ambivalent about the European Union, neither unequivocally pro, nor passionately opposed. For Boris, as for most people, deciding whether we should Leave or Remain is a question of weighing up the pros and cons.
I’ve known Boris for over 30 years and in all that time he’s been conflicted about the EU. This was evident in The Dream of Rome, his 2006 book. (See here for my review in the New Statesman). Throughout the book he contrasts the ‘lunar pull’ of the Roman Empire with the bloodless rationale of the EU, never more apparent than in the difference between the beautiful coins of Rome and the hideous banknotes of the Eurozone:
The European leaders could not agree on a single person to put on their money – of course not – so they have ended up with a depressing series of schematic architectural drawings of bridges and ditches and culverts and whatnot.
The last time I saw Boris was at his sister Rachel’s 50th birthday party last year and we spent a good 30 minutes talking about the referendum and which side he was going to come down on. He replied – honestly, I think – that he was waiting to see what sort of deal the Prime Minister managed to secure in his renegotiation. His position was that Britain benefits from being a member of the Common Market and that if the PM was able to secure associate membership status for the UK, whereby we remained part of a European free trade association, but were exempt from ever closer union and clawed back sovereignty from the European Parliament in a number of key areas, such as agricultural and fisheries policy, he would campaign for In.
But it’s clear that David Cameron hasn’t managed that. He hasn’t repatriated any powers to the UK – on the crucial issue of the ‘red card’, Britain would have less power under the terms of Cameron’s deal than it does at present, as I explained in the Telegraph– and our exemption from ‘ever closer union’ depends upon a promise of treaty change which Francois Hollande has said he has no intention of honouring. No matter how the Prime Minister tries to dress it up, the UK simply won’t have ‘special status’ within the EU if we vote Yes on June 23rd. That’s the reason Boris has come down on the Out side.
Cohen (and the Prime Minister) claims Boris is positioning himself for a leadership bid, and argues that it’s win-win for Boris since even if Britain votes to Remain he’ll still be in pole position to succeed Cameron, having endeared himself to the party faithful. But I’m not convinced by that. Don’t forget that Boris had been promised the Foreign Office if he sided with the Prime Minister on this issue – and no doubt Osborne had promised him that he’d use his influence within the parliamentary party to ensure Boris was on the final ballot to go before the party membership in the final stage of the leadership election. That would have been the safer option if Boris’s only concern was to further his ambitions. But he’s taken the riskier path, not least because Britain is more likely to vote to Remain than Leave. If that happens, as he bookies tell us it will, Boris reputation as an election winner – his principal asset as a leadership contender – will have been tarnished. Are Conservative Party members really so swivel-eyed about Europe that they’ll pick the leader of the Out campaign to steer the party into the 2020 general election after the country has voted to remain In? In that scenario, wouldn’t the de facto architect of Cameron’s victory in the EU referendum – namely, George Osborne – be a more sensible choice? In politics, the spoils usually go the victor, not the loser.
Cohen cites the incoherence of Boris’s argument for backing Brexit in his Telegraph column today as evidence of his ‘slipperiness’, but it’s nothing of the kind. If Boris was the self-seeking opportunist Cohen portrays him as, unconstrained by any ‘core beliefs’, he would have argued unequivocally for Brexit, a stance that would have endeared him to the Tory faithful. The fact that he didn’t, but expressed the hope that a ‘Leave’ vote might lead to a proper renegotiation in which the UK could genuinely secure associate EU membership – the ‘second referendum’ argument that the Prime Minister ridiculed in the House of Commons – reflects his genuine ambivalence. That’s evidence that he is constrained by belief, not that he’s prepared to say anything to advance his cause
At the root of Cohen’s analysis is a misreading of Boris postmodern political style, which might be termed ‘sincere inauthenticity’. I wrote about this for the Wall St Journal in a piece about the 2012 London Olympics:
‘One of the mayor’s strengths is his mastery of ironic counterpoint. He says whatever he’s expected to say – he toes the party line – but in such a mischievous, twinkly-eyed way that he deliberately leaves you in some doubt as to whether he actually means it.
‘He knows the electorate is far too jaded to take anything a politician says at face value, so rather than try and fake sincerity, he’s openly insincere. It’s as if he’s saying, “Like most politicians, I don’t really believe any of this guff, but unlike my colleagues I’m not going to insult your intelligence by assuming you haven’t cottoned on to that fact.” As a strategy for diffusing public hostility to lying politicians, it’s remarkably effective and it helps explain why Boris is one of the few senior Tories capable of appealing to Labour voters – as his election to the London mayoralty testified.
‘Boris’s trick is to appear authentic by trying and failing to mimic the behavior of more oleaginous politicians, as if he’s just too honest to play the game. Early in the Olympics, he took to a zip-wire in a public park to celebrate Great Britain’s first gold medal. It was the sort of cheap stunt that less sophisticated politicians engage in all the time and, had he pulled it off, Boris might have seemed tediously conventional.
‘But as luck would have it, the stunt went wrong. Boris got stuck on the zip-wire halfway down and was left looking like a cartoon character dangling from a pair of giant underpants.
‘Instead of treating this as a PR disaster, he chortled away merrily, showing the world that he’s capable of laughing at himself. Another triumph for the man who’s been called Britain's first postmodern politician.’
Cohen has interpreted this peculiar and original way that Boris has of presenting himself to the public – both expressing a point of view and distancing himself from it at the same time – as evidence of his lack of conviction. To Cohen, as to Cameron, it’s all just part of his vainglorious egotism, a way of having his cake and eating it.
But I think it speaks of an honesty and depth that 99 per cent of politicians lack. For Boris to take up a simple, unambiguous position on a complex issue would be a betrayal of his intellect and understanding, so instead he either caricatures the position a less sophisticated politician would take, says something and then immediately contradicts it, or tries to embrace both sides, often in a way that’s very funny.
Cohen may not like this style, but, at root, it’s more authentic than that of the Prime Minister and reflects how most of us feel about big political questions with no easy answers. It’s also, I think, what makes him such an effective communicator. There’s an honesty in Boris’s equivocation and play-acting that the public instinctively responds to precisely because they resent being taken for fools by most politicians, who pretend to feel what they don’t.
Ultimately, what Cohen dislikes so much about Boris – his lack of straightforward sincerity – is what makes him such a big asset to the Leave campaign.