Over a beer with some academic friends yesterday, conversation turned to Brexit. Boris Johnson will only become Tory party leader if Britain exits the EU was the consensus among my friends. It’ll be Osborne otherwise. I expressed my doubts yesterday, and have been pondering this more since, and have come to the conclusion that Boris Johnson’s chances of becoming Prime Minister are higher if Britain remains in the EU than if it exits.

The argument goes like this.

If Britain remains in the EU that will be a victory for Cameron in the country as a whole, but the political benefit the current PM gets from it will be limited and short lived. With opinion polls prior to the referendum close, and neither campaign having yet inspired the country, the chances of a stonking large victory for Remain to boost Cameron look slim.

Remember Tory Party members favour Brexit 59% to 38% (see YouGov under first graph here) and will be annoyed the result is against what they perceive to be in their interests. This will strengthen the resolve of those among the parliamentary party to oust Cameron as soon as possible. As Matthew D’Ancona has written, MPs are split down the middle, and it takes only 15% of them (50 MPs currently) to call for a no confidence vote in the current leader. With Cameron already having promised to not seek a third term as PM, any such confidence vote would weaken him, potentially fatally even if the vote were not lost. With Osborne being both pro-EU and struggling after his recent budget, he is not going to be in a position to be able to beat Boris in the short term – polling of how the potential candidates shape up against each other can be found here. The way the Tories choose their leader is explained here – essentially the final two candidates go forward to a poll of party members, and those members favour Brexit, helping Boris.

So if Britain remains in the EU, Boris will be Prime Minister sooner rather than later.

If Britain leaves the EU it is actually much more complicated. The pound hit a 7 year low on the day Boris announced he was for Brexit, and that could be a taste for what happens after a Leave vote – no-one quite knows what would happen on the day after a Leave vote (and the government has been criticised for a lack of contingency planning), but I think it is safe to say that potential political and economic turmoil is going to take quite some handling, and indeed some time to handle short term until things calm down.

Britain voting to Leave would mean Cameron is politically toast, but not even the Tories are going to go for a leadership election if the pound is tanking and multinational businesses are stating they’re choosing to invest somewhere else. In this situation the fire would also turn on Boris for having helped take the UK over the precipice. A leadership election, pushed into the medium term, would be harder for Boris to win in these circumstances. It might not be Osborne who would profit, but there would be an anyone-but-Boris effort.

That might also be the reason by Boris is being, even by Boris standards, pretty damned awful at making the case for Brexit. Because saying he is in favour of it helps him, but it actually happening doesn’t.

[UPDATE – 24.3.16, 1800]
Andrew Lilico has made a similar argument on Conservative Home – looking at this issue beyond just Boris.


  1. Richard

    “but not even the Tories are going to go for a leadership election if the pound is tanking and multinational businesses are stating they’re choosing to invest somewhere else. ”

    Hmm. This would be the same bunch of Tories who are perfectly well aware that the above is the outcome of what they are advocating and are going full steam ahead anyway. Many of them have made clear that they don’t think Cameron’s position would be tenable in that scenario – as indeed it wouldn’t. Having failed to achieve an acceptable renegotiation, how exactly is Cameron supposed to have a mandate to negotiate an exit? At the very least he would be a lame duck PM who would have to hand the negotiations over to someone from the Leave camp.

    ” In this situation the fire would also turn on Boris for having helped take the UK over the precipice.”

    Yes, which makes me largely think the Boris strategy has a central assumption that Remain wins – I really fail to see how a politician like Boris (who unlike Osborne avoids political flack by mostly trying to do as little as possible) would be prepared to act as PM for exit negotiations he knows full well will not deliver what he is saying they will (what he is saying now, that is – what he said previously was much more realistic). Conversely, if Remain Wins, the Tory gerontocracy will revenge itself on any politician from that camp, which essentially neatly clears the field for Boris.

  2. It’s an interesting argument but, without presuming to be any kind of good at the specifics of UK politics, it seems slightly too simple on the political dynamics. The base case of politics in democratic systems is that wins build on wins…

    Now if he wins this Boris won’t have been the first to put the dagger — plus he would have been right — and aside he’s part of the same – acceptable – club. If he loses he’s the most prominent back-stabber and Cameron has all the time to serve out. Cameron could end

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