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Will Boris Boost the Leave Campaign? I'm Not So Sure

03/03/2016 09:35 GMT | Updated 03/03/2017 10:12 GMT

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It reads like a fairytale. Prince Boris Johnson, long feted as the people's politician, will finally realise his prophesied political success (and personal ambitions) by leading the Leave EU campaign to victory this June prompting David Cameron into a humiliating resignation and handing the Conservative crown over to his Etonian rival.

Except, as with all fairytales, there's a baddy waiting in the wings to upset the happy ever after. The only twist is that in this story the baddy shares the same body as our hero. Whilst much is being made of noble Boris' invigorating impact on Leave (to the extent that Tory HQ predict he could add as much as 5% to their vote) I think Boris could actually be more destructive to his own campaign than is currently being recognised.

It is currently fashionable in political commentary to focus in on the popularity of Corbyn, Trump, Sanders, and Johnson and argue that their success reflects the sentiment of an electorate dissatisfied with an out of touch, identikit political elite. The closest comparison to Boris is Donald Trump - and not just because they both have remarkable hair. There is, however, a crucial difference between the two figures: no matter how vulgar it might be, Trump has an identifiable message. He is anti-elite, anti-foreigner, and anti-political correctness. The policies he uses to exemplify these might appear to have come from a random word generator but the sentiment remains consistent.

Boris, on the other hand, lacks this consistency. His ability to go with the wind of public opinion has helped maintain his popularity in the past but on a topic as complex as the European Union and our place within it, the public need a simple, emotive, powerful message. Has anyone ever felt that Boris can deliver such leadership? Boris himself doesn't even seem clear on what his message should be. Originally he said that a Leave vote would precipitate a second referendum, used to negotiate a better deal for Britain. Now he has admitted that he doesn't think that would be possible - a vote to leave would see Britain packing their bags. Not having ever headed-up a serious campaign has meant that Boris has always been able to follow behind public opinion. 1 in 5 people are thought to be undecided over how they will vote. Such people need leadership, not someone following the scent of their own views.

This failing could ultimately see the Boris mask slip. Trump's big "thing" is that he is not part of the elite: he speaks for "the people" (so long as the people are not black, foreign, Jewish, female, journalists, Neil Young, or slightly overweight). Boris cannot occupy this territory because his privileged background is no secret. This is a fact that is only going to be highlighted by this referendum campaign. For a start it is going to pit Cameron against Boris, helping to reignite the old-school tie rivalry. How long will the public put up with this bunfight? If the public's perception of PMQs - the Oxford Union debating society Mark II - is anything to go by, it won't take long for people to switch off from their infighting. Secondly, as the referendum turns more and more into a battle to succeed David Cameron the obvious truth that Boris is only using this campaign to further his own ambitions, rather than standing up for the public, will become even more apparent. Will the public really vote Leave just to help shuffle Johnson into No.10?

I don't just believe that Boris' positive influence on the Leave campaign will be negligible. I think he could have a negative impact. Amongst the unholy alliance of friends that the Leave campaign has thrown together is a very serious politician with a very serious commitment to leaving the EU: Michael Gove. If Gove comes to believe that the Boris sideshow is distracting from the main performance of Leave, how will he respond? Infighting could burst into the open or he might intercede and ask Boris to stepback. Either way, Johnson is going to have to tread a fine line between active support and maintaining the unity of the campaign and unfortunately for him, subtly has not always been one of his strong points.

Boris' involvement in the Leave campaign has certainly added a new dimension to the referendum debate and no doubt stirred hopeful emotions amongst many Tory Brexiters. However, we still have four months to go until the public get to vote. I wouldn't be so sure that during that time posturing from Johnson and infighting amongst the Conservative Party won't have left a bitter taste in many people's mouths.