How Boris Johnson flip-flopped on Brexit

Britain's foreign secretary wrote an unpublished column against leaving the European Union. Johnson says he penned the piece to clarify his thoughts on the issue. 

Toby Melville/Reuters
Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson speaks at the annual Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, Britain, Oct. 2, 2016. The Sunday Times published a column Mr. Johnson wrote days before the 'Brexit' referendum in which he argues against the vote.

The pro-con list … Boris Johnson, a champion of the "Brexit" campaign, said he put the classic, decision-making exercise to use when he wrote an unpublished newspaper column against leaving the European Union days before he came out in favor of the contrary.

But some of Mr. Johnson’s opponents don’t buy the former newspaper correspondent’s explanation. They argue it proves he backed Brexit for his own political advancement.

It has long been known that Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary and the former mayor of London, wavered before he broke with then-Prime Minister David Cameron in February to become a charismatic campaigner for the "Leave" camp. But some British officials argue this new insight into one of Brexit’s most familiar voices should not impact the referendum because the public has already voted.  

“The job of the government is to deliver the result of the referendum. The British people have spoken and we are going to deliver for them,” Priti Patel, Britain’s international development secretary, told BBC on Sunday.

She warned against members “using Parliament as a vehicle to subvert the democratic will of the British people,” referring to a cross-party campaign to force a vote on the country’s negotiating strategy with the EU.   

When the Sunday Times published excerpts of the column late Saturday, it reported Johnson said he wrote newspaper columns for and against remaining in the 28-nation bloc to clarify his thoughts on the issue.

In the column against leaving, he touches on concrete and emotional arguments to remain in the bloc.

He writes the EU is “a boon for the world and for Europe.”

“This is a market on our doorstep, ready for further exploitation by British firms: the membership fee seems rather small for all that access,” writes Johnson. 

He fears the economic outcome of Brexit as well, writing that the "Leave" campaign must answer that question. He also worries about how Brexit could hurt Britain’s relationship with Scotland, or empower Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin. And he makes an emotional case for preserving ties to other European nations.

“Shut your eyes,” he writes. “Hold your breath. Think of Britain. Think of the rest of the EU. Think of the future. Think of the desire of your children and your grandchildren to live and work in other European countries; to sell things there, to make friends, and perhaps to find partners there.”

Johnson told Sky News Sunday he penned the column after writing “a long piece which came down overwhelmingly in favor of leaving.”

“It is perfectly true that back in February I was wrestling with [the question] like I think a lot of people in this country,” he said. “I set them side by side and it was blindingly obvious what the right thing to do was, and I think the people made the right decision. They voted very substantially to leave the European Union and that is what we’re going to do.”

But critics accused Johnson of being two-faced.  

It would “confirm many people’s suspicions that he put his own career ahead of the interests of the country,” Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrats foreign affairs spokesman, told the BBC. Mr. Brake’s disparagement rehashed criticism of Johnson that his eurosceptic beliefs were actually party motivated by personal ambition and political calculation, according to Reuters.

But the odd case of the two columns also serves as a reminder of how Brexit brought opposing groups within Britain together, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Sara Miller Llana and Alexis Xydias wrote three days ahead of the June 23 referendum.

The electorate has broken into heterogeneous camps that each contains people from very different social and political backgrounds. Stubborn dividing lines have broken down, whether between Tories and Labour supporters now joining hands for Remain, or posh Brits aligning with working class voters in favor of Leave.

The race “has broken down all sorts of barriers,” said Cary Cooper, an organizational psychologist at the University of Manchester, as the Monitor noted was evidenced by Johnson, who went to Eton College, a school to royalty, and Oxford University, uniting with Scott Tatham, a city council worker with a distinctive working-class accent.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.  


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