David Cameron and Boris Johnson (Rex Features)
David Cameron and Boris Johnson (Rex Features)


Boris, the Brexit and what the EU referendum will do to relationships

The referendum on Europe has the potential to rip apart political allegiances and previously cosy friendships, says Gaby Hinsliff

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By Gaby Hinsliff on

Picture the scene: a leading female politician confesses to “veering all over the place like a supermarket shopping trolley” on the biggest question in British politics.

She dithers haplessly for weeks, saying one thing to friends and another publicly, before finally plumping for what's seen (perhaps unfairly) as the career-boosting answer. Sure, she might just be honestly reflecting an internal struggle. But imagine the damage to her leadership prospects. She'd be fortunate to avoid tabloid front pages comparing her to The Thick Of It’s hopeless Nicola Murray.

Perhaps Boris Johnson is lucky, then, to be a man. After weeks of wobbling over the forthcoming EU referendum in June, the London Mayor has finally emerged as the big box-office star the “Outers” were lacking. He's been accused of naked opportunism but his leadership prospects shine if anything more brightly; overnight he became the new bookies' favourite to succeed David Cameron, the poster boy for Eurosceptic ordinary Tories everywhere. 

It shouldn't matter, obviously. The debate should be about issues not egos, about Britain’s place in the world, not the race to succeed David Cameron. 

Ideally, it also wouldn't insult our intelligence with endless overhyped stories about how voting for the other lot will render us destitute and/or sitting ducks for terrorists. (Don't hold your breath, though; with women voters seen as more risk-averse than men, anxious to choose the “safe” option, both sides are likely to play heavily to female fears.)

And with luck it might even involve some actual living women politicians, rather than men bickering over what Margaret Thatcher would have thought if she was alive. At least both sides are increasingly wise to this one, with home secretary Theresa May and Easyjet executive Carolyn McCall key “Inners” and up-and-coming ministers Priti Patel and Penny Mordaunt ready for deployment by “Out”. 

Polling suggests Boris is one of vanishingly few politicians capable of capturing attention

But the harsh truth is that whatever voters say, most of us quickly zone out of long boring arguments about sovereignty and solidarity; and polling suggests Boris is one of vanishingly few politicians capable of capturing attention. Ultimately it’s human drama that brings things alive – as in Scotland, where independence became a question so emotive that marriages divided and families fell out over it. 

Europe doesn't cast anything like the same shadow over everyday lives and friendships yet. But at Westminster, things are already getting strangely poignant.  

This referendum is probably David Cameron’s last swansong as prime minister. Lose his battle to keep Britain in Europe and he’s toast, his legacy defined at a stroke; win, and many Tory MPs will move happily on to pondering his successor. He has never needed allies more but while his cabinet has mostly rallied round, there are painful exceptions.

Michael Gove and his journalist wife Sarah Vine have been not just political soulmates but close friends of the Camerons for more than a decade, sharing school runs and cosy Sunday lunches. Sarah babysat the children on election night and was even tipped at one point to run Samantha’s Downing Street office. The wives' friendship cooled somewhat when Vine started her weekly Daily Mail column and their husbands have certainly had their moments, particularly when Cameron demoted Gove from education secretary. But old loyalties run deep and neither man relishes fighting the other over the referendum (Gove's an Outer).

Boris’s relationship with Cameron has always been harder to pigeonhole, warmer than their schoolboy rivalry implies yet insanely competitive. But Cameron won’t easily forget the humiliation of publicly wooing Boris for weeks only to be brutally dumped by text (the Mayor messaged him nine minutes before publicly declaring for Out). The barbs he slipped into yesterday's Commons debate, noting pointedly that as he's standing down he has 'no agenda' beyond doing the right thing, suggests he's certainly not taking it lying down.

Still, you have to wonder what went through the Camerons’ minds on seeing pictures at the weekend of both Goves leaving an apparently cosy dinner at the Johnsons’ Islington home last week.  It’s lonely at the top. But it’s even lonelier, perhaps, when your time there feels as if it’s slowly running out. 


David Cameron and Boris Johnson (Rex Features)
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EU News
Gaby Hinsliff

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