Boris Johnson, Not Nigel Farage, Is The 'Superstar' Who Can Win The EU Referendum, Claims Tory MP

Steve Baker
Steve Baker
Sky News

Ukip leader Nigel Farage is not a "superstar" who can deliver a victory for the Leave camp in the EU Referendum, a leading Tory Eurosceptic MP warned today.

Steve Baker, co-chair of the anti-EU group Conservatives for Britain, instead backed London Mayor Boris Johnson as someone who could "command the authority" needed to secure a referendum win for the Leave side.

Mr Johnson has yet to announce which side he will back in the referendum, which could be held in June this year if David Cameron is able to finalise his renegotiation of the UK's membership in the next few weeks.

But the role of the Ukip leader - and what prominence to give the issue of the immigration in the campaign - is believed to be one of the reasons behind the failure of the two main Leave groups to merge.

Mr Baker appeared to further heighten the rift between the two separate Leave organisations when he poured cold water on the notion of Mr Farage being a figurehead for the entire movement.

Appearing on Sky News’s Murnaghan show this morning, Mr Baker spelt out his objections to Britain’s most well-known Eurosceptic leading the Leave campaign.

He said: “Ultimately there will have to be an accommodation in a single designated campaign and a role for everybody of decent goodwill and good faith who wishes to be involved, and that will include Nigel Farage.

“But let’s be really honest, Nigel Farage is a brilliant man for appealing to his own core vote but he cannot appeal to the 51 per cent plus of the population we will need to win this referendum.”

Mr Baker claimed Vote Leave – headed up by Justice Secretary Michael Gove’s former advisor Dominic Cummings – was focused on swing voters, whereas the Farage-backed Leave.EU “will verge more into the core vote, and we think a core vote strategy will lose the referendum.”

Sky News presenter Dermot Murnaghan pressed Mr Baker on who he would like as a figurehead for the Leave side, and suggested London Mayor Boris Johnson as a possible contender.

Mr Baker said he favoured a “constellation” of spokespeople, but “of course the appeal of a superstar at the centre of it and one who commands respect and authority would solve a number of problems if it was someone around who everyone could coalesce.”

When pressed on whether he wanted Mr Johnson to be that figure, Mr Baker said: “There’s a range of characters in Government who might command the authority necessary to carry the public and Boris would be one of the them.”

There are not just disagreements between the two separate Leave campaigns, but reports of infighting among Vote Leave members have also hit the headlines in the past week.

It has been reported that veteran Tory MP Bernard Jenkin tried to lead a coup against the two figures at the top of Vote Leave – Mr Cumming and Business for Britain Director Matthew Elliot – after expressing frustration about how the campaign was proceeding.

The move was unsuccessful, and this morning Mr Baker conceded there were “severe disagreements” among Vote Leave members.

Speaking on BBC's Sunday Politics later this morning, Mr Baker revealed he expected between 50 and 70 Tory MPs to vote for the UK to leave the EU.

When asked if he expected Home Secretary Theresa May to back the UK quitting the EU, he replied: "[She] made a speech on immigration which is extremely difficult to reconcile with our membership of the EU, [but] the planned ideas on benefits really wouldn’t touch the sides. It really is a matter for her."

When pressed on the internal divisions in Vote Leave, Mr Baker stopped short of calling for resignations at the top of the organisation but did call for "material changes".

He said: “It’s very, very late in the day to be making such a profound change but, given the severe concerns of my colleagues, it’s quite clear there are going to have to be material changes in Vote Leave in order to carry parliamentarians with the campaign.

“There’s going to have to be a greater degree of involvement with parliamentarians so that they feel they’re meaningfully helping to shape the campaign in order to win the core and the swing voters we need.”