Boris Johnson can lead Britain out of Europe – if he’s serious about it

Boris Johnson can lead Britain out of Europe – if he’s serious about it

Boris Johnson announces he will back Brexit campaign YouTube

But if not then he might have made a big mistake writes Keiran Pedley

So its official, Boris backs Brexit. After a period of intense speculation in Westminster, the Mayor of London has come off the fence and announced that he will campaign for Britain to leave the E.U.  Make no mistake, this is a major coup for the ‘Leave’ campaign which, until now, has been widely derided for the apparent lack of credible leaders within its team.

In the coming days there will be much debate about how important the Mayor’s intervention actually is. Sensible pundits will point out that the ebbs and flows of Westminster politics are rarely as significant as they are made out to be.  There is, after all, no reason to think that Britain will vote to leave the European Union just because Boris Johnson says so. It’s far more complicated than that.

However, this particular intervention has the potential to be very significant. How much so depends on Boris himself but more on that later.

Is Brexit now possible?

It’s worth pointing out that the ingredients for Brexit are already there. The extent to which depends on whether you choose to believe the telephone polls that show Remain significantly ahead or the online polls that show the race neck and neck (or Leave slightly ahead). Given that we cannot know for certain which are correct, you can choose to believe the polls that suit you in terms of the outcome itself for the time being.

However, if we look beyond the headline figures, there are two key pieces of polling data that will please those backing Brexit. Firstly, Britons think that David Cameron negotiated a bad deal last week. A recent poll by Sky News suggested that 69% think the terms of the Prime Minister’s deal with Europe are ‘bad for Britain’. Secondly, polling from ComRes has shown that controls over immigration are foremost in people’s minds when deciding how they will vote in the referendum – along with control over Britain’s laws. Therefore, the basis of a successful campaign based on immigration and Cameron’s failure to negotiate a good deal for Britain is clearly there.


Challenging the status quo

Of course, this has to be set against huge (potentially insurmountable) challenges faced by the Leave campaign. The status quo usually carries an advantage going into referendum campaigns (see the AV referendum and Scotland for details) because frankly keeping things as they are is always easier. When we consider that Britons currently see Brexit as riskier than voting to Remain and that David Cameron is seen as the most important voice in the referendum campaign (see polling from Ipsos Mori below) then the status quo looks strong in this contest. The onus therefore is very much on Leave to convince the public a change is needed and until now that campaign has been led by divisive figures such as Nigel Farage or relative unknowns such as Kate Hoey.

Ipsos MORI Political Monitor February 2016 (1)

Enter Boris – Britain’s most popular politician

This is why Boris Johnson coming out for Leave is significant. Now the Leave campaign truly has an advocate that is both popular and a ‘heavy hitter’. Someone that could potentially lead a post-Brexit Britain. Boris is important because polling consistently shows that he is Britain’s most popular politician. We can debate why and how significant this is but it is clearly a fact. Polling by ComRes below for example shows that Johnson is viewed more favourably than any other politician in the country (indeed he is the only one with a net positive rating). Meanwhile the chart above shows that he is second only to David Cameron in terms of important voices in the referendum debate.


Source: ComRes

So although Boris coming out for Leave can hardly be called decisive it does act as something of an equaliser in a campaign that has long felt very one sided. Remain still has the Prime Minister, the business community, Labour and the status quo on its side but at least now Leave feels that bit stronger. If the Leave campaign can frame a campaign around ‘forcing a better deal for Britain’ led by Boris Johnson then perhaps the public will be able to see what a post-Leave Britain looks like and the prospect will be seen as less risky than it is now. That would indeed be a ‘game-changer’ to coin a phrase I usually hate.

That is, of course, assuming Boris Johnson is serious.

Playing a dangerous game

It might seem slightly odd to question the sincerity of a man that has put his political future on the line by campaigning against his own party and prime minister on an issue of such obvious importance. However, it is reasonable to be a little suspicious. Johnson has hardly been a strong advocate for withdrawal from the E.U. before and his statement yesterday suggested that he didn’t really plan on leading the Leave campaign from the front either. He was very clear, for example, that he would not take part in any hypothetical debates on the issue.

All of this makes Johnson’s decision look somewhat half-hearted and at worst contrived and politically motivated. Already commentators are suggesting that his decision has much more to do with his desire to lead the Conservative Party as Prime Minister rather than genuinely see Britain leave the E.U. The argument goes that it’s a win-win for Johnson. If Leave wins then Cameron goes (and Johnson takes over) but if Remain wins then Johnson can become the Brexit candidate versus George Osborne when Cameron stands down.

This is all very well and good but it may not be that simple. If Johnson doesn’t roll up his sleeves and lead from the front then it is debatable how much of an impact his support for Leave will actually have. More importantly, you do wonder how likely Brexit minded Tories will be to support him in the future if they feel that he is just going through the motions in this campaign to benefit his own political ambitions. Party activists rarely like the idea that they are being taken for a ride.

So make no mistake, Boris coming out for Leave is a significant moment in this campaign. How significant – and what happens next – is up to him. Today the potential for Brexit has never been greater but Boris Johnson is going to have to show that he is serious about it to make it happen.

Keiran Pedley is an elections and polling expert at GfK and presenter of the PB/Polling Matters show. He tweets about polling and politics at @keiranpedley.

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