Will Boris and Zac back Brexit?

If the London Mayor and his potential successor opt for 'Out' it could damage the Prime Minister

October 05, 2015
Conservative candidate for Mayor of London Zac Goldsmith (left) and Mayor of London Boris Johnson ©Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/Press Association Images
Conservative candidate for Mayor of London Zac Goldsmith (left) and Mayor of London Boris Johnson ©Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Who would have guessed. According to Lord Aschroft’s new book, David Cameron has always favoured Britain remaining in the European Union. I can offer some equally astonishing disclosures. Jeremy Corbyn is left-wing. Boris Johnson wants to be Prime Minister. Nicola Sturgeon would like to lead an independent Scotland. If those dramatic insights don’t win me a blogger of the year award, I don’t know what will.

The question, of course, is not whether the Prime Minister wants to keep Britain in the EU, but whether he can win the coming referendum. For most of this year, YouGov polls have found a steady, if modest, lead for staying in. However, our latest surveys show the two sides neck-and-neck. In the months ahead, we shall see how Cameron goes about renegotiating Britain’s relations with the rest of the EU—and what effect this has on public attitudes.

Meanwhile, as the Conservatives gather in Manchester for their autumn conference, I suspect Cameron will be nervously watching how two particular members of his party behave. One is Boris Johnson; the other is his putative successor as mayor of London, Zac Goldsmith. Both are charismatic politicians able to reach beyond the Tory tribe. Both have past form as eurosceptics. Both now say they are waiting to see what concessions the Prime Minister manages to extract from Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and the other continental leaders.

In a close referendum, the result could turn on which way Zac and Boris eventually jump (it’s a mark of their charisma that both are routinely referred to be their first name). This is because many of the swing voters in the referendum will be Tory voters. YouGov surveys have found consistently that most currently say they would vote to leave the EU; but when we ask them what they would do if Cameron said he had protected Britain’s vital interests and recommended a vote to stay in, a large number say they would switch sides and back their party leader.

If both Zac and Boris end up backing the Prime Minister’s campaign to stay in the EU, this would underpin Cameron’s position. Both men could say to their own party supporters that they are long-standing critics of Brussels, but are now convinced that the best course for the United Kingdom would be to remain part of the European club.

Conversely, if both men join the “Out” campaign, this would damage Cameron greatly. Boris, obviously, and Zac, potentially, have a special; ability to enthuse grass-roots party members. Tory voters might then resist Cameron’s arguments. The result could well be Brexit. (If Boris and Zac take different sides, then they would probably cancel out.)

So what will the two men do? I have no idea. More to the point, I’m not sure they know either. We can be certain that Cameron will do his best to win them over. One argument he will undoubtedly employ is that London (like Scotland) will almost certainly vote decisively to remain in the EU, even if the UK as a whole votes to leave. Will Zac and Boris want to defy not only their party leader but the majority view of the city that one has led for eight years and the other now wishes to? Let’s see if this week’s party conference gives us any clues as to which side they will end up backing.