Boris Johnson, always keen to look on the bright side, has again been insisting that the UK will get a Brexit deal with the European Union but will be absolutely fine if it does not. I’ve been working on a short book about Johnson’s eight years as London Mayor, aiming to provide an account of what he did and did not achieve in that job and placing it in the context of what he did next: becoming poster boy for Brexit, the victim of Michael Gove in the Tory leadership battle that followed the referendum, and then, to the amazement of many, being made foreign secretary under that battle’s eventual winner, Theresa May.
What is to be made of Johnson’s latest remarks or anything else he says about the EU? Many continue to believe he is not a Leaver at heart, never believed that Leave would win and only joined the Leave campaign because he thought it would cement his popularity with Eurosceptic Conservative Party members, who in theory (though not in practice in 2016) have the final say in choosing their party’s leaders. But had he, in truth, long been genuinely in two minds about the issue, able to see merit in both sides of the debate, as expressed in one of his columns for the Telegraph in May 2013? Is he, perhaps, in two minds still?
Going back to that Telegraph piece is interesting for a number of reasons. On the “stay in” side of the ledger, Johnson listed possible risks to British business, foreign investment in Britain, Britain’s global influence and Britain’s reputation, which might suffer if pulling out of the EU was seen as “a narrow, xenophobic, backward-looking thing to do”.
On the “get out” side, he placed Britain no longer being able to blame the EU for its problems, which he bluntly summarised as “short-termism, inadequate management, sloth, low skills, a culture of easy gratification and under-investment in both human and physical capital and infrastructure”. Our poor productivity levels were, he said, “nothing to do with the EU”. The rest of the “get out” list was devoted to sovereignty: familiar Outer gripes about Romanians claiming benefits and EU interference in our laws, plus the firm assertion that “we would no longer have to cough up for the EU budget and could spend those billions in the UK”.
This last point has since acquired extra resonance. The Leavers’ bus-side claim that departing the EU would gift the nation £350m to spend on the NHS was denounced at the time as an outright lie. Then, it was reported that the EU might demand a much larger, ongoing “exit fee” from Britain. Johnson has said it would not be “reasonable” for the UK to have to make such payments and that there is precedent for saying no to the EU, citing Margaret Thatcher’s securing a rebate from it back in 1984. The analogy, though, is not exact.
Like his Telegraph column, Johnson’s record as mayor shows a range of attitudes to issues that would be central to the referendum campaign. The term “credit crunch” entered everyday language within months of his election in 2008. Responding to the downturn, he commissioned a report by Square Mile economists which concluded that London’s future prosperity depended on a loosening of EU regulations.
Sticking up for the capital’s financial services sector in the face of sustained banker-bashing, he took a day trip to Brussels in 2009 to lobby against a planned directive for controlling hedge funds more tightly. This, he tweeted, would “cost London & UK jobs and billions in tax”. It should be noted that hedge fund managers had helped pay for his election campaign. Even so, his stance was consistent with his dislike of EU “interference” which did not, in his view, assist Britain.
On immigration, Mayor Johnson often came across as relatively liberal. Indeed, he once proclaimed himself the only politician in the country prepared to stand up and say he favoured it. Some were surprised when, also in 2009, he professed himself potentially open to the idea of “earned amnesties” for various kinds of irregular foreign migrants (as he had already done during the election campaign). His argument, based on research conducted for him by the London School of Economics, was that it simply wasn’t practical to deport the estimated 450,000 people in London who weren’t here legally and that the roughly 300,000 who could be eligible for an amnesty might eventually contribute £3b a year to the national economy.
He has also spoken up more than once for making it easier for Indians to obtain student visas. And in that Telegraph column he described it as “mad” that non-UK EU citizens could qualify for UK benefits while the Tory-led coalition government was “keeping out Chinese tourists to achieve immigration caps”. His case was that to “get back our sovereignty” would mean we would be free to formulate an immigration policy that better served our national interests. In Johnson’s vision of a Britain outside the EU, welcoming Indian students and Chinese tourists fitted that description. Accommodating Romanians who might use our welfare system did not.
I have been told that the sovereignty question in general was the one that most exercised the now former Mayor Johnson where Europe was concerned. This seems to complement that vivid yet also very subtle enactment of a certain kind of Britishness fundamental to the “Boris” persona. The comic toff performance, the talent for self-parody, the jovial patriotism that came into its own during the 2012 Olympics, the impression of not taking himself too seriously, the defiant fogeyism, the hanging of a portrait of the Queen in City Hall – all of this spoke to a kind of revivalist delight without calling up the pinched xenophobia it sometimes contains.
During his time as mayor, Johnson, including in his incarnation as “Boris”, was, at times, able to describe and portray a version of Britishness that accommodated both an openness to the world based on enlightened self-interest and a reassertion of solid values he appears to think naturally and instinctively of this nation. It is a picture I am inclined to think he sees as perfectly consistent with a glorious, lost British past. It is also an optimistic one. Whether it stacks up as a realistic British future is yet to be seen.