Ever since it became known that Boris Johnson had written two articles ahead of his decision on the EU referendum, one making the case from each perspective, there’s been an undue degree of salivation about his unpublished Remain piece. Its very existence was said to prove that he had decided purely on the basis of self-interest, that he was really a Remainer at heart and, some speculated, it would contain stronger arguments than his Leave case.
We now know that speculation was overblown, inflated by the power of a vacuum. When we didn’t know what was in the article, it became a blank canvas on which anyone could draw whatever image best served to confirm their own views about Johnson the man and about the referendum more generally.
The article, published in the Sunday Times yesterday, acts as a corrective to those wilder imaginings, and is also instructive as to the Foreign Secretary’s nature.
Its form – effectively a short speech, stringing together a list of arguments – reminds us that Johnson is a debater by training and by nature. His original account, that the two articles were written as an exercise to test the merits of each case, is common practice when preparing for a formal debate, not least to enable the proponent of a position to armour his case against the opposition. (The university debaters’ crib book Pros and Cons provides pre-compiled lists of arguments on various topics for exactly this reason). Given that he was about to plunge into the most high profile and heated national debate in a generation, it wouldn’t be surprising for him to have reverted to this exercise – fleshing it out into an article served effectively as a wargame, a “what if” exercise to test whether he really was making the right decision.
The content reveals that his decision was not an uncomfortable contortion for its author. Far from it, in fact – it has the air of someone trying to make a case for something in which they genuinely do not believe, seeking out arguments of party loyalty and compromise despite more deep-seated instincts about issues of principle. Johnson reportedly told his advisers “This [the Remain article] is going to make me vomit”, and reading it one can feel his discomfort:
‘I can see why people might just think, to hell with it. I want out. I want to take back control of our democracy and our country.
If you feel that, I perfectly understand — because half the time I have been feeling that myself. And then the other half of the time, I have been thinking: hmmm. I like the sound of freedom; I like the sound of restoring democracy. But what are the downsides — and here we must be honest.’
Particularly telling is the crucial role Cameron’s renegotiation seems to play. Even when making his Remain case, Johnson feels the need to mention it (something the actual Remain campaign were loathe to do), and to concede that “no one could credibly claim” it amounted to the fundamental reform that the then-Prime Minister had pledged. He knew that to back Remain meant swallowing that failed renegotiation, and it seems that he simply could not do so. Whoever told Newsnight that the pro-EU article was more convincing was, at best, not an entirely reliable source.
In short, unable to find a convincing Remain argument and unable to stomach those he could drum up, Johnson really had come to believe in the Leave position. No doubt some will continue to try to portray the article as evidence of the opposite, but that case has been revealed to be bogus.
There are also some hints to Johnson’s character and self-image. Having deliberately invited Churchillian comparisons, not least by writing a book about him, Johnson was surely aware that the above passage in which he tries to balance out freedom and democracy with “downsides” would have clashed with that message. More deeply, his distaste for the risk averse, steady-as-she-goes theme which was the best he could rummage up for the Remain article returns us once again to Johnson’s blessing and curse: he likes to roll the dice.
As Andrew Gimson recounts in his biography, Boris, when Sue Lawley asked him on Desert Island Discs if he liked to play with fire, Johnson was audibly reluctant to confront the idea. Eventually he conceded there could be “an element of truth” to it, but in reality this is one of his core characteristics. Sometimes it gets him into trouble, always it prevents him being boring, and on this occasion that temptation to reject the blurry, unsatisfactory compromise and instead upend the established order won through. Britain’s history changed as a result.