Victory could be Boris’ worst nightmare

by Hugo Dixon | 22.02.2016

As a classicist, Boris Johnson knows all about Pyrrhus of Epirus. The Mayor of London ought to be worried that, in championing the Leave side in the upcoming referendum on the European Union, he might follow the ancient Greek general and end up with a pyrrhic victory.

If Boris continues to downplay the risks of Brexit – as he did in his column for The Telegraph – victory could be his worst nightmare. Boris, who is one of my oldest and closest friends, is likely to become prime minister if we vote to quit. He would then have to negotiate our exit terms and preside over what could be a potentially traumatic divorce.

If Boris hadn’t prepped the voters for what to expect, he would bear the blame for any trouble. In the worst case, his entire premiership would be taken up fire-fighting, the Tory party could tear itself apart in recriminations and (God forbid) Jeremy Corbyn could be elected prime minister in 2020.

Boris’ arguments for leaving are weak. He exaggerates the extent to which the EU is hurtling towards further integration. Although there’s a lot of talk about fiscal union within the eurozone, the French, Germans and Italians have totally different ideas about what that would involve.

What’s more, Britain wouldn’t have to participate in any such integration anyway — something that ought to be crystal clear now that David Cameron has negotiated an opt-out for the UK from “ever closer union”.

Meanwhile, Boris underplays how much say we actually have within the EU – writing that only 4 percent of the people working in the European Commission are British. What he doesn’t say is that our voting strength in the Council of Ministers is 13 percent – the second largest along with the French. He is happy to criticise the Remain camp for doing Britain down but he has fallen into precisely the same trap himself.

However, the real danger in Boris’ position is that he is downplaying the risks of Brexit. He admits that the risks to the economy “cannot entirely be dismissed”, but then says they are likely to be exaggerated. What he doesn’t tell us is what sort of relationship he thinks we should have with the EU after we quit. Unless he comes off the fence on this, voting to quit really is a leap in the dark.

Boris acknowledges that, if we quit the EU, we will have to replace the 50-plus free trade deals that it has clinched with other parts of the world. But he then says it should be possible to do that in the two years we would have between notifying the EU that we want to leave and actually leaving. That’s fancifully ambitious, given that we would also be tied up negotiating our divorce from the EU at the same time.

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Boris admits that there’s a risk that Brexit will “cause fresh tensions in the union between England and Scotland”, but then pooh-poohs the idea that the Scots will break away on the basis that they won’t vote differently from the English in the coming referendum. That’s not what opinion polls are suggesting.

Then Boris mentions how “we have spent 500 years trying to stop continental European powers uniting against us”. But he goes on to say “there is no reason (if everyone is sensible) why that should happen now.” Maybe. But this is certainly a risk we shouldn’t want to run. The one scenario that could trigger the creation of a United States of Europe on our doorstep is a Brexit vote.

Maybe it is because of all this that Boris is seemingly hedging his bets. His article contains the following curious sentence: “There is only one way to get the change we need, and that is to vote to go”. This could be taken to mean that Boris doesn’t really want to Leave; he just wants us to vote to Leave and then to have another crack at negotiating better terms to stay.

That doesn’t seem a sensible course of action. But if Boris really thinks that it is, he should say so openly. The time for Delphic utterances is over.

Boris should also be open with the British people about the risks they are running by voting to Leave. Such transparency would be in his best interests, even if it cut the chance of a Brexit.

If the people voted to Leave, it would be harder for them to complain that the new prime minister had sold them a pup. And if they voted to Remain, Boris would still be the darling of Tory eurosceptic right and so well placed to take over from Cameron when he eventually resigns. Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat would be better than following in Pyrrhus’ steps.

This piece is being published simultaneously in The Telegraph.

Hugo Dixon is the author of The In/Out Question: Why Britain should stay in the EU and fight to make it better. Available here for £5 (paperback), £2.50 (e-book)

2 Responses to “Victory could be Boris’ worst nightmare”

  • It seems that Boris and the other outers have forgotten the reason EU was created – to stop the continual conflict between European countries – after 2 world wars and millions of Europeans killed. Getting round a family table is the best way to sort out problems, but the participants are still individuals who can live together – for the common good. All family gatherings require some give and take – Europe is no different – we cannot have our cake and eat it!!! The Outers believe in the days of the Empire and want to bring it back – but the world has moved on and there are other world powers now – including EU.

  • We don’t want continental European countries to unite against us, so we should leave the European Union, where we have a say in what they all do. Perhaps the weirdest argument ever?