LONDON — Britain’s prime minister launched an astonishing attack on a leading member of his own party today as the Conservatives’ brutal civil war over Britain’s membership in the European Union reached a boiling point.
The party has been divided on the issue of British sovereignty for a generation but David Cameron—like his predecessors—has largely tried to keep the squabbling away from the TV cameras. That changed Monday when Cameron lashed out at the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who has become the unofficial leader of the campaign for Britain to vote to leave the economic and political union in a referendum that will be held on June 23.
Johnson announced his decision to join the “outers” to a scrum of television cameras and reporters camped outside his home in North London on Sunday evening. Cameron could not conceal his anger at his former school and university colleague—and he suggested in the House of Commons today that Johnson was gambling with Britain’s future as part of a cynical plot that would allow him to replace the prime minister as leader of the Conservative Party.
“I’m not standing for re-election,” Cameron said. “I have no other agenda than what is best for our country.”
He may not have mentioned Johnson’s name, but it was clear whose nefarious “agenda” he was attacking. Few people expected Cameron to publicly attack the motives of one of his most powerful allies.
There is scarcely a sentient being in the country who does not understand that Johnson covets Britain’s top job. Critics—now including his former friend Cameron—believe he is willing to do anything to secure that promotion when the prime minister stands down before the next general election in 2020.
Boris’s dad, Stanley Johnson, a former member of the European Parliament, said it was a “total travesty” that people were impugning his son’s motives.
“I cannot think of any more career-ending move than to do what he did yesterday, in the sense that he is leaving the mayoralty in May,” said Stanley Johnson. “If he wanted to get a nice job in the Cabinet on May 8, this is not the way to do it.”
Indeed, but Boris Johnson is not the sort of man to settle for a mid-ranking job when he thinks the stars are within his grasp.
Johnson sees himself as a modern-day Winston Churchill, although grandiloquence and a lack of personal discipline are not necessarily the great war leader’s traits that are most urgently needed back in Downing Street.
Until May he will continue to do at least three jobs—mayor, member of parliament, and columnist.
In his regular column for The Telegraph published after his announcement, Johnson made the surprising claim that Britain voting to leave the European Union might in fact be a cunning ruse to better negotiate the terms of Britain’s membership.
A vote to leave, his argument goes, would allow London to sign a more advantageous membership deal because France, Germany, and the rest would be terrified by the prospect of Britain quitting the club.
Cameron ridiculed that suggestion in the House of Commons, while being cheered on by his enemies on the Labour benches.
“I won’t dwell on the irony that some people want to leave in order to remain,” he said. “Such an approach… ignores more profound points about democracy and diplomacy.”
As the cheers rose in the House, Boris Johnson’s arms remained crossed and his head shook back and forth from time to time.
“Sadly,” Cameron continued, “I have known a number of couples who have begun divorce proceedings. I do not know any [couples] who have begun divorce proceedings in order to renew their wedding vows.”
When Johnson rose to speak, someone yelled: “Tuck your shirt in!” But Johnson managed to avoid firing any shots at Cameron or his heckler.
He simply said: “Can I ask the prime minister to explain to the House and to the country in exactly what way this deal returns sovereignty over any field of lawmaking to these Houses of Parliament?”
As Cameron responded that his deal had helped to return more powers to Britain from Brussels, Johnson could be seen muttering: “Rubbish, rubbish.”
Johnson had been in a more expansive mood earlier in the day during his own mayoral question-and-answer session. In making a case that Britain would prosper, not stumble, as an isolated nation, Johnson said the fear-mongering by those who want to remain in the European Union had been overblown.
“I genuinely think those fears are wildly exaggerated. Those are the arguments that we have heard time and time again,” he said. “I remember vividly hearing it in the run-up to the decision of whether or not we go into the euro—people said that if we didn’t join the euro, they said that Throgmorton Street [in the City] would crack and yaw and great mutant rats would gnaw the faces of the last bankers and all this sort of nonsense. It didn’t turn out to be true.”
Cameron officially announced that Britain would hold a referendum on Europe late last week and more than half of his party has already indicated that they will vote against him. If the next four months are as ferocious as the first four days, the prime minister should expect plenty more rats to go for his face.