David Cameron may come to rue the day that he kept his friends thisclose.
For if there was any one single human being who can be said to have shifted the delicately balanced scales in the British referendum to leave the European Union, it was his old school chum Boris Johnson.
Boris bet the house on supporting Brexit. The Whitehall rumor was that he was going to be punished with the role of minister for transport if Cameron’s Remain team had won. Instead, after Leave’s shock victory, Cameron has announced he is leaving the stage—and Boris may now walk away with the ultimate prize: the British premiership.
Johnson—who once declared, “My policy on cake is pro having it and pro eating it”—is now the odds-on favorite to be the next leader of the Conservative party, followed by Theresa May (a Remainer, but an equivocal one, so a strong “unity” candidate) and Michael Gove, who fronted the Leave campaign with Bojo, as Boris is widely known.
Until now, Boris has been Britain’s best showman-politician; he has winkled his way into the hearts of the nation because of, rather than despite, his refusal to tone down his upper-class mannerisms.
He has a disarming habit, for example, of using terribly British expressions of enthusiasm, such as “Crumbs,” “By Jove,” and “Golly” to illuminate his policy viewpoints. His dishevelled appearance—crumpled suits and chaotic hair—has become an unlikely trademark, telegraphing, he seems to hope, a brilliant brain with no time to spare for the tedious minutiae of hair-brushing and lace-tying.
But on Friday, when he finally appeared in front of the cameras for the official Leave press conference, he sought to project a serious and statesmanlike impression.
Although his speech studiously avoided referring to his own leadership ambitions (he has previously said: “I think it’s a very tough job being prime minister. Obviously, if the ball came loose from the back of a scrum, which it won’t, it would be a great, great thing to have a crack at,”) his appearance was the clearest clue that he is indeed attempting to transition from brilliant eccentric to PM-in-waiting.
The hair was a little mussed, but not standing up on end as it sometimes is. He was wearing a pressed shirt and a properly tied tie. His voice was calm and sober. He resisted the temptation to amuse.
He praised Cameron, emphasized that the “divergence” from the EU that was coming would be “gradual” and called for great minds “outside of politics” to contribute to the work ahead.
But he had come not to praise Cameron, but to bury him.
He sought, with a straight face, to cast the vote as a triumph of inclusivity, saying it would allow the U.K. to “take the wind out of the sails of those who would play politics with immigration.”
He called the EU a “noble idea for its time,” but added that a “supra-national” body was “no longer right” for the U.K.
“I believe we now have a glorious opportunity,” he concluded, consciously channeling his hero, Winston Churchill, adding that the U.K. can now set taxes and “control our borders however we see fit.”
The bookies’ enthusiasm for Boris, however, misses the fact that other Conservative MPs, hate him.
They see him as an egocentric concerned only with his own personal ambition.
And they suspect that the main reason Boris came out for the Leave side was not out of deeply held principle, but to settle a long-running score with Cameron, whom he disobligingly refers to as Dave.
Cameron was two years younger than Johnson at Eton College, and Boris is said to have never quite got over the fact that his junior made it to Number 10—while he had to be satisfied with the consolation prize of London mayor. The two were friends at Eton—Eton is a hierarchical institution but friendships, albeit based on servility, do exist between between boys of different ages—and they were close at Oxford University, where they were both simultaneously members of the notorious Bullingdon Club, a secret drinking society famed for smashing up restaurants and other acts of alienating entitlement.
Boris was the brighter and more brilliant boy, and simply couldn’t believe “Dave” pipped him to the post for the big prize.
Now, at last, revenge is in his grasp. Cameron today tearfully said he is prepared to stay on for another three months.
But Boris—whose sister, writer Rachel Johnson, has told how, as a child, Boris told people he wanted to be “World King”—may not be prepared to wait that long.
He has the wind in his sails.
If he declared his leadership ambitions now, would anyone really dare to oppose him?
If they did not, he could be leader within weeks, while Cameron, forgotten and humiliated, shuffles off stage, likely to be remembered by history as the worst British prime minister since the ill-starred Anthony Eden.
Which would suit Boris very nicely.