As on many issues, Boris Johnson has made great efforts to position himself on the side of the Tory grassroots on key issues where the parliamentary leadership takes a different position, particularly when it comes to the European Union. The Mayor signed the People’s Pledge for an In/Out EU referendum in March of this year, but this evening, he appears to have backtracked rather. This is his exchange with John Pienaar on 5Live from a few minutes ago:
Pienaar: Would you still want an In/Out referendum?
Johnson: Well, I’ve always said… I think we’ve been now, what is it? 75 was the last referendum on the European Union: I certainly think that if there were to be a new treaty, for instance, on a fiscal union, a banking union, whatever, then it would be absolutely right to put that to the people.’
Pienaar: What about In/Out though?
Johnson: Whether you have In/Out referendum now, you know, in the run-up to 2015, I can’t, I have to say I can’t quite see why it would be necessary. What is happening, though, John, is that… the thing that worries me, and I’m going to be making a speech about this pretty soon, the thing that worries me is basically the European Union is changing from what it was initially constituted to be: it is becoming the eurozone de facto, and the eurozone is not something we participate in, and I think it’s becoming a little unfair on us that we are endlessly belaboured and criticised for being the back marker, when actually this project is not one that we think is well-founded or well-thought through. It is proving to be extremely painful and difficult, and so I think, if the and when the eurozone goes forward into a fiscal, banking union, into a full-scale political union, then I think it is inevitable, given the changes that will entail to the EU constitution, that you will have to consult with the British people about what kind of arrangements they want, and in those circumstances, yes, you should jolly well have a referendum.
Pienaar: A yes/no, In/Out, that’s got to be part of the deal?
Johnson: Well, certainly, whatever arrangements we strike with our partners, I mean, you see, I don’t think it’s as simple as yes/no, In/Out, suppose Britain voted tomorrow to come out: what would actually happen? In real terms, what would happen is that the Foreign Office would immediately build a huge, the entire delegation would remain in Brussels, UKrep would remain there, we’d still have huge numbers of staff trying to monitor what was going on in the community, only we wouldn’t be able to sit in the council of ministers, we wouldn’t have any vote at all. Now I don’t think that’s a prospect that’s likely to appeal. What you could do is think of a new arrangement, new areas of the treaty that we decided we didn’t want to participate in… that is where people are thinking, now, so I don’t think it is, I mean, with great respect to the sort of In/Outers, I don’t think it does boil down to such a simple question.
So Boris no longer thinks Britain’s relationship ‘does boil down to such a simple question’. It’s an interesting stance to take, not only because the Mayor has previously committed to the Pledge, but also because polling from that same campaign found earlier this month that 53 per cent of Conservative voters in Corby did not think there is any point in a referendum which does not include an In/Out option. As James explained in his column back in May, retaining the In/Out stance would have given the Mayor quite some headway in a future contest for the Tory leadership, as the only candidate promising a referendum.
The suspicion among eurosceptics is that this will allow David Cameron to avoid making the In/Out pledge that many in his party yearn for in his Big Europe Speech that’s due in the coming weeks. If so, it is unusually generous of the Mayor to make his colleague’s life easier. The Prime Minister is giving a statement on last week’s EU budget summit in the Commons tomorrow afternoon: his backbenchers will now be even more desperate to use the ensuing debate to push him on his own position on a referendum question than they normally are, given one of their figureheads appears to have crumbled.