Voters Care Less About Boris Johnson Than the Press

Britons are unlikely to rush to the European Union’s exit now that the mayor of London has made up his mind.

London mayor Boris Johnson in Hampstead Heath, April 15, 2012
London mayor Boris Johnson in Hampstead Heath, April 15, 2012 (i-Images/Andrew Parsons)

If a foreigner had bought a British newspaper this morning, she might have assumed Boris Johnson were already prime minister.

The outgoing mayor of London, who is a likely candidate to succeed David Cameron as Conservative Party leader at some point before the next election, came out in favor of a British exit from the European Union on Sunday night. Every major newspaper in the country apparently thought it was the most important thing in the world, for they all put him on their front pages.

This website didn’t think it worthwhile to report the news at all. Johnson is hardly the only prominent Conservative to support an exit. Several cabinet members do, including Michael Gove and Ian Duncan Smith. Johnson does lend charisma to an out campaign that has sorely lacked it. But it would have been far more newsworthy had the great flirt of Euroskeptic England thrown his support instead behind Cameron and the campaign to stay in.

Lessons not learned

The mania around Johnson’s decision reveals that the British political class, including its news media, have learned little from the most recent election, argues Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times

It should have been a traumatic lesson in basic truths — that Mr Cameron might be better at politics than a guy with a blog, for example — and also a turning point in the way we distil politics for a lay audience. Breathless hyper-scrutiny of fiddly events could have given way to a discriminating regard for fundamentals.

Instead, many still react to transient events like “over-caffeinated children.”

To be sure, Johnson is a popular politician. But that doesn’t mean he will necessarily sway many voters one way or another in June’s referendum.


Britons aren’t nervous about the possibility of leaving the EU because there isn’t a “dazzling frontperson for the cause,” according to Ganesh. It’s because they’re being invited to exchange the lived reality of EU membership for an ill-defined alternative.

In the last two years alone, British voters have twice decided to stick with the imperfect but familiar. The Scots rejected independence in 2014. The whole country rejected an Ed Miliband experiment in 2015. Yet we are to believe that these same risk-averse voters currently split — if the polls are to be believed this time — over whether to stay in the EU or not will rush to the exit now that Boris Johnson has made up his mind?

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