Within the ranks of the Leave Campaign, Boris Johnson was second only to Nigel Farage in terms of fronting media coverage.
The towheaded former-mayor of London was one of the first politicians to get out in front of the Leave campaign.
Many saw Boris’ position as a self-serving attempt to win power, but how would that plan have worked?
Why did Boris not capitalise on his Brexit victory to achieve even greater political heights?
Johnson’s history as a eurosceptic goes back much further than the Brexit referendum.
Despite having been educated for a time at the European School of Brussels, Johnson is known for his criticism of the EU.
From 1989 to 1993, Johnson served as the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent. In these years, Johnson defined himself through his strong criticism of Jacques Delors, the president of the European Commission, the precursor the the European Union.
According to biographer Sonia Purnell, Johnson’s columns about Europe became the favourite of former-prime minister Margaret Thatcher, but subsequent Conservative leader John Major was annoyed by him.
Purnell credits Johnson’s writing as a catalyst for making euroscepticism “an attractive and emotionally resonant cause for the Right”.
Purnell also suggested the rise of UKIP and the growing division between eurosceptics and europhiles within the Conservative party could be attributed to Johnson’s articles.
After serving two terms as London mayor, Johnson returned to the House Of Commons as the MP for Uxbridge and West Ruislip in the 2015 general election.
In early 2016, Johnson made headlines for refusing to clarify his position on Brexit, but in February 2016 he laid rumours to rest by public supporting the Leave campaign.
Why did Boris Johnson support the Leave campaign?
In his Telegraph column endorsing the Leave campaign, Johnson outlined his opposition to the EU, citing an alleged lack of influence that Britain could wield in Brussels:
As new countries have joined, we have seen a hurried expansion in the areas for Qualified Majority Voting, so that Britain can be overruled more and more often (as has happened in the past five years). We have had not just the Maastricht Treaty, but Amsterdam, Nice, Lisbon, every one of them representing an extension of EU authority and a centralisation in Brussels. According to the House of Commons library, anything between 15 and 50 per cent of UK legislation now comes from the EU; and remember that this type of legislation is very special.
He also blamed excessive EU regulation interfering with Britain’s ability to make policy:
The more the EU does, the less room there is for national decision-making. Sometimes these EU rules sound simply ludicrous, like the rule that you can’t recycle a teabag, or that children under eight cannot blow up balloons, or the limits on the power of vacuum cleaners. Sometimes they can be truly infuriating – like the time I discovered, in 2013, that there was nothing we could do to bring in better-designed cab windows for trucks, to stop cyclists being crushed. It had to be done at a European level, and the French were opposed.
Johnson also suggested that membership of the European Union was holding Britain back from achieving its potential on the world stage.
He argued that membership of the single market prohibited Britain from making all the trade deals with the rest of the world that it could if liberated from Europe:
This is a truly great country that is now going places at extraordinary speed. We are the European, if not the world, leaders in so many sectors of the 21st-century economy; not just financial services, but business services, the media, biosciences, universities, the arts, technology of all kinds (of the 40 EU technology companies worth more than $1 billion, 17 are British); and we still have a dizzyingly fertile manufacturing sector. Now is the time to spearhead the success of those products and services not just in Europe, but in growth markets beyond.
What happened after the referendum?
Following the success of the Leave campaign, David Cameron stood down as prime minister.
Many expected Johnson to take up his mantle. The Guardian reported that Johnson “took an early lead with the bookmakers after years of speculation about his ambitions”.
Unfortunately for Boris, things didn’t go quite as he may have planned. Just hours before the conference which many had expected Boris to use to launch his campaign for Prime Minister, Michael Gove launched a rival campaign.
Many had seen Johnson’s fellow-Leave campaigner as a key ally in his leadership bid. One of Johnson’s allies speaking to the Telegraph described Gove’s move as an “assassination”:
“This was a carefully planned assassination. It was systematic and calculated to do the maximum damage to Boris. When he saw his opportunity for an act of midnight treachery he took it.”
The move didn’t particularly seem to work in Gove’s favour either.
The treacherous former-secretary of state made it to the second round of the leadership contest but lost out after only garnering around 14 percent of the vote.
Upon taking over as leader of the Conservatives and prime minister, Theresa May announced Johnson would be her foreign secretary.
Stephen Bush of the New Statesman characterised May’s decision as an act of political cunning designed to weaken Johnson’s position.
Bush argues that May gave Johnson the position in order to keep him out of the country and avoid him staging a coup. Meanwhile many of the powers associated with the foreign secretary were delegated to the newly formed positions of ‘Brexit Secretary’ and International Trade Secretary.
Nowadays, Johnson still notionally has responsibilities to act as Britain’s public face to the rest of the world. In reality, however, much of his influence has been taken from him.
David Davis will be the real power behind Brexit, while Liam Fox will be mostly in charge of working out new trade deals as international trade secretary. Johnson’s position, though not quite reduced to being a simple figurehead, is certainly going in that direction.
Whether Johnson’s squabbles with Fox or Davis will shift the outcome of Brexit in any significant way remains to be seen. For the time being though, he’ll probably be mostly helpless in watching the Brexit he created unfold.