22 February 2016

Boris Johnson has blown Nigel Farage out of the water


Just 72 hours ago you couldn’t move for Nigel Farage interviews. All the broadcasters wanted to talk to him as he buzzed cheerily around Brussels explaining why he thought David Cameron’s EU deal was an insult to the British people and all that jazz. Three days later and Farage is not only old news. He has been so comprehensively eclipsed by a political superstar, Boris, that he might as well have been wiped from the historical record. Who, apart from the most devoted UKIP supporters, cares what he says now? The rapid reversal in Farage’s fortunes illustrates how dramatic the weekend was, with Michael Gove publishing his Brexit rallying cry and then Boris Johnson declaring that he is for Leave.

I have a book to get on with finishing writing, so I will turn off my internet machine for most of today. First, before I do that, here are some brief observations about where we – in Britain – are on this referendum business.

1) It’s not boring. If you think it is, then I’m sorry but you’re banned. This is the most exciting UK political story since November 1990 and the fall of Thatcher, and it may be more interesting than even that. Beyond the human drama, this vote will have far-reaching economic and diplomatic implications at a moment of acute danger, with Russia being assertive and the US in flux. The EU referendum is not boring.

2) Remain are still the favourites to win, of course, on the basis that the British tend to be a small c conservative bunch. But the referendum is now competitive, in that the moderates in Leave now have convincing front-line figures from the cabinet and beyond who can communicate with middle-ground voters.

3) Boris makes no difference and it is all media hysteria, I see it said by assorted metropolitan sophisticates. Of course there is hysteria involved. It’s the British media. But dismissing the importance of Boris is to misunderstand how the Tory tribe works (that’s the tribe that made up a large chunk of the 11.3m Conservative votes at the last election). Many Tory-leaning voters in England are unsure about Brexit. They might dislike a great deal that the EU stands for, but that does not mean they are unaware that leaving entails risk. If the Leave campaign had been dominated by UKIP then it would be easier for the many moderate Tory-Leaning voters who are repelled by Farage to conclude that Outers are all saloon bar bores and that the Prime Minister is a realist whose position should be backed. Boris alters the equation. They won’t necessarily do what Boris and Gove say, but such voters are likely to listen and hear them out.

4) What is Boris saying? He’s given his critics a way in by suggesting that he merely wants to negotiate a better deal. This has been characterised as him urging people to vote Leave to Remain, on the basis that the only way to get a better deal, such as a trading relationship without the supra-national elements, is to vote leave and then talk to the EU. Won’t work, say the Remainians. Boris really wants to stay, say UKIP. But what do either of those camps think would happen after a Brexit vote? The EU’s own provisions explain that there would be a two year process during which there would be a lot of negotiations. Only a complete loon would think that the UK and the EU should have no relationship. The Boris position – leave to restore sovereignty and then negotiate a new relationship based on trade – is the standard moderate, Brexit position and has been for years. Really.

5) On the evidence so far, the Eurosceptic cabinet ministers for In who have signed up to support the Prime Minister, have a problem. Michael Fallon, usually an assured performer, was on the Today programme this morning and goodness he sounded uncomfortable. The line seems to be that the EU is awful but leaving it would be even worse, which is hardly inspiring. Someone for Remain surely has to start making a positive case soon?

6) The designation is key here, meaning that next month the Electoral Commission will decide which of two Leave campaigns is designated for broadcasting air time and official recognition. The losers will struggle to get noticed. Leave EU – morphing into Grassroots Out (GO) – was established by Farage and his wealthy friend Aaron Banks. Badinage aside, they have done a remarkable job in turning what should have been a straightforward win for the more moderate Vote Leave into a genuine race. Vote Leave is run by Matthew Elliott. And by Dominic Cummings, who has been so abrasive that his antics gave Farage and Banks weak spots to exploit, which they did brilliantly. But on Friday, with its rally in London, GO made two mistakes. First, it held the rally, which for all that it featured non-UKIP politicians looked like a UKIP event with the colours changed. There was no attempt to reach out. It was believers talking to each other. As well as that, the UKIP leadership schtick is that mainstream politicians are all idiots. Turns out it’s not easy putting on a rally that appeals to non-obsessive voters. Second, they invited George Galloway to speak, which outraged some Ukippers and may even drive supporters towards the light of Boris and Vote Leave.

7) The designation could still just about go to Leave EU (the Farage option) because the campaign can claim – as required in the designation process – to be cross party. But it is unlikely. What is more likely after the events of the weekend is a move away from GO to Vote Leave, after some delicate diplomacy this week by Gove, Elliott and leading donors, allowing Tories and Labour people who went to Banks and GO a way back. Look at those front-pages today and the media impact of Boris, who is backing Vote Leave. If Leave – the outsiders – are to stand a chance of overtaking Remain then there is is only one option. There is only one show in town. That’s Vote Leave.

8) The In campaign will undergo some necessary turmoil as it feels the full force of Cameron and Osborne’s attention. Number 10 has been helping Remain a lot, obviously. But now, for all that In are favourites, this is an emergency and the Prime Minister’s job is on the line. Unlike in the 2015 general election, the Tory leadership will have to do it without their electoral guru Lynton Crosby, who will not go up directly against a PM he greatly respects. But he is definitely for Out, say friends.

9) Whatever happened to Tony Blair? Surely the leading supporter of the EU will get involved in the campaign, or is he regarded as somehow not an asset?…

10) The international backdrop in May and June will matter, a lot. In are making their pitch on the basis of safety against instability. That may work, but the great unknowns are the migrant crisis and the global economy. The migrant crisis may well assist Leave, if there is a sense that the EU is broken and cannot cope. Equally, a burst of instability via the European banking system or the US stock market could either be presented as further evidence of EU weakness (by Leave) or a reason (by Remain) for the EU to stick together.

As I said earlier: it is not going to be boring.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX.