Whilst the Labour party in recent years has frequently been rent by debilitating internal strife and power struggles between differing ideologies, the Conservatives have, at least on the surface, been able to keep their power plays within the path laid out by David Cameron (or at least keep any major disagreements out of the public eye). The EU referendum however has proved catnip to rebels of all stripes and with Boris Johnson throwing his considerable (political) weight behind the Out campaign, Cameron’s strictly enforced party loyalty seems in danger of stuttering to a degree never before seen.
Behind the curtain of the referendum however lies another struggle for supremacy, with many both within the Conservatives and without who view Boris’s championing of the Out campaign as simply a cold-blooded political stepping stone for the Mayor’s longed for anointment as post-Cameron leader. There are few who doubt other Tory rebels such as Michael Gove’s sincere beliefs in the goals of Brexit, but Boris’s enthusiasm for the anti-Europe cause has certainly been examined with a particularly sharp feeling of cynicism. Whether or not this will end up mattering in the long run remains to be seen. Whatever his reasons and true beliefs the public has frequently polled Johnson’s influence on the European question to be second only to Cameron, with recent studies by BMG Research finding that up to 9% of voters willing to change their mind on the strengths (or weaknesses) of Johnson’s arguments for leaving Europe.
Whilst the press has been presenting Boris as effectively the de-facto leader of the Leave Campaign, it is far from a unified movement and some within it are fiercely suspicious of the Mayor’s motives. Boris along with six other cabinet ministers (Ian Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, John Whittingdale, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and Priti Patel nicknamed the slightly Maosist sounding Gang of Six) have sided with the Vote Leave: One of the main rival Eurosceptic camps the other being the GO Movement fighting for Brexit. Previous merger attempts between Leave EU (one of the predecessors to the GO Movement) and Vote Leave were scuppered by what appeared to be personality clashes and differences on tactics. Considering that Nigel Farage sits on the GO Movement’s board it seems unlikely that the fight between the Euro-sceptic groups will be shortlived or bloodless. The Electoral Commission will make its decision after the PM calls the poll, which could be held as early as June 2016.
Considering the stakes of Brexit, this isn’t so much a hill as a vertiginous mountain that Boris has chosen to make his stand on. The exact extent of Boris’s always slightly opaque level of popularity with the people will be forced into the light and by the referendum political fortunes will be gained or lost forever. For both the Mayor and the country.