15 February 2016

The CapX alternative guide to Brexit: Part 1 – Indecisive big beasts


This Brexit business can be confusing. Which campaign is Vote Leave and what is Leave EU? Why is the SNP for staying in the sovereignty-sapping EU but for leaving the smaller UK? Who is Aaron Banks? Why is Dominic Cummings still on Twitter? If the UK departs the EU can we ‎please leave UKIP leader Nigel Farage behind in Brussels? Is Stronger In really run by secret agents of the Out campaign(s) as it appears to be? When will the referendum finally be over?

All these questions and more I plan to answer in the CapX cut out and keep guide containing everything you don’t need to know about the longest running political news story since the disappearance of Lord Lucan. Today I’ll be examining why three of the biggest Tory beasts cannot make up their minds about which way to vote in the referendum, when they have for many years made Eurosceptic speeches and written articles about how terrible the EU is. Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid, you’re up first.

Boris is for Brexit, surely?

No, no, no, as someone once said. Ignore those hundreds of brilliantly crafted dispatches from Brussels in the 1990s when Boris was there for the Daily Telegraph. Look beyond all the amusing stories he wrote about bent bananas and bonkers Brussels bureaucrats, and you discover that Boris is no Outer. His father and the Johnson clan are European Union through and through. Astonishingly, otherwise well-informed people who have met Boris, and perhaps donated money to the Tory party, ask me when he will finally reveal himself as the true leader of the Leave campaign. When I explain that Boris is secretly very pro-EU they look crest-fallen. “But… but… all those articles about the bent bananas and the bonkers Brussels bureaucrats?” Articles, just articles. Very good articles, but just articles for newspapers.

So Boris will definitely vote to stay in?

Hold on, I didn’t quite say ‎that. Boris is not an Outer and he would only vote Leave in an emergency. But as the great John Rentoul put it when I made this point on Twitter the other day, does Leave might win count as an emergency for Boris? And yes, it does. Boris has left this option open so that if the Cameron deal with the EU unravels even more (hard to imagine it could get any more threadbare) then he can say that, by jove, goddamit, this infernal loss of sovereignty is just too much for him to stand and he is now for Leave. His wife Marina wrote a piece earlier this month on that very subject for The Spectator. In this way, Boris has his Leave the EU cover story ready just in case. Why? If Leave wins, and the Tory party has to choose a new leader, the many Tory members who are for Leave may not look kindly on a candidate who backed the losing side. Boris is really for Remain, but he might go Leave. Boris is mainly for Boris.

What is Michael Gove up to?

The Spectator’s James Forsyth explained in the Sun the other day that the former education secretary is torn between loyalty to his principles and loyalty to his friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor. The increasingly desperate pleas for loyalty reportedly emanating from Cameron and Osborne are amusing, however, when one considers that Cameron rather nonchalantly removed Gove from his beloved post at education and made him chief whip before the last election, replacing him with Nicki Morgan. It was appallingly badly handled and Gove, as he admitted himself, is not one of life’s natural chief whips. The bookish Gove, with his unfailing courtesy, old-fashioned manners and razor-sharp intellect, has long played along with his friends to such an extent that he appears to be lightly bullied by the bigger boys. How refreshing it would be, and how very Gove, if he politely said later this week after the Prime Minister returns from Brussels that he cannot endorse his friend’s deal. After playing a leading role in the Leave campaign, Gove would then be a pivotal figure in the re-establishment of Tory unity whatever the result. That’s got to be better than spending the ten weeks of the referendum campaign hiding from the media, or going on the airwaves to pretend that the PM secured a great deal. Soon, we’ll know what Gove decided.

Sajid Javid is for Brexit, surely?

Theoretically, yes, the Business Secretary and fast-rising star of the new generation is for leaving the European Union. Javid has been a Eurosceptic his entire adult life and his successful career in investment banking gave him a robust view of European economic competitiveness. But Javid is in a tricky position. In the great Osborne plan – now somewhat unravelling, thanks to the markets – Javid is his likely pick as Chancellor if George makes it to Number 10 in the post-Cameron leadership race. But how much is such an offer worth any more? Might Javid decide to run on his own instead? That will be trickier if he renounced his Eurosceptic views to back Cameron and Osborne and then ended up on the losing side. Get it wrong and he will have traded a shot at the leadership for the Westminster equivalent of a ticket on the Titanic.

Oh, and one postscript. The confused state of the opinion polls is making it more difficult for some undecided Tory ministers to make up their minds, precisely because they don’t want to be on the losing side. Why don’t they decide what they think as a matter of conscience and then argue for it in front of the voters? Could this ever catch on?

More, next time, on the CapX alternative guide to Brexit.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX