viernes, 1 de julio de 2016

A very British betrayal

How the Brexit ‘dream ticket’ fell apart.

It was just after 8:30 a.m. when Michael Gove’s “treachery” began to filter through.

Boris Johnson’s closest allies had gathered in a small office off Horseferry Road in central London, near the Grey Coat Hospital school where David Cameron and Gove, the justice secretary, send their children. The office had only just been rented as Johnson’s leadership campaign headquarters.

Johnson, the former mayor of London and the man who led Britain out of Europe, was set to announce his campaign to become prime minister just around the corner at Westminster’s St Ermin’s Hotel at 11:30 a.m.

It should have been a triumphant occasion, another step to Johnson’s coronation at the pinnacle of British politics.

Instead, Johnson’s advisers realized that their boss had been knifed by the man who was supposed to lead his leadership bid.

After a week that has turned British politics inside out, Westminster insiders thought there was nothing left to surprise them. Gove’s decision to withdraw from the “dream ticket” and stand for the leadership himself was stunning. What came next was even more dramatic: at 11:53 a.m, seven minutes before the cut-off to enter the Tory leadership race, Johnson pulled out.

Days after the Conservative Party lost its leader, humiliated by a referendum defeat masterminded by his old friends, the party had lost arguably its brightest star.

Johnson’s withdrawal from the race leaves Home Secretary Theresa May as the clear frontrunner.

It also makes divorce from Brussels inevitable. Faint hopes that Britain under a Johnson premiership could negotiate a “Brexit light” deal with the EU have been extinguished.

The remaining candidates — May, Gove, Andrea Leadsom, Liam Fox and Stephen Crabb – have all committed themselves to full Brexit with controls on free movement of people.

MPs, political aides and journalists, frazzled and sleep-deprived after days of turmoil, scrambled to get to the bottom of Gove’s startling betrayal. Suspicions fell on the role of Rupert Murdoch, whose Sun newspaper campaigned aggressively for Brexit. Days earlier, the media mogul told a conference of business leaders in London: “I’d be happy for Michael Gove to get it.”

Cracks in Johnson and Gove’s relationship appeared Wednesday when an email to Gove from his wife Sarah Vine was leaked to Sky News. In the message, Vine, a Daily Mail columnist, urged her husband to play hardball with Johnson, and to withdraw support unless he received specific assurances about his plans. “Do not concede your ground,” she wrote. “Be your stubborn best.”

Vine’s influence over her husband’s thinking has been “significant,” said a journalist who has known the couple for years.

Party members wouldn’t back Johnson without Gove alongside him, Vine said, and nor would Murdoch or Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, another powerful, pro-Brexit tabloid.

That the support of Murdoch and Dacre figured so prominently in the Goves’ thinking sparked alarm among media-watchers who have long argued that the tabloids have too much influence over British politics.
Support ebbed away

When Johnson’s team gathered on Thursday morning Gove was still onside.

The previous night Gove and Johnson had attended the Conservative’s Summer Ball together at the exclusive Hurlingham Club in Fulham, West London, and then later went on the Tories’ 1922 party.

At the meeting Thursday, Lynton Crosby and Mark Fullbrook, the Australian campaign gurus, were joined by Johnson’s communications chief Will Walden, long-term ally Ben Wallace and a handful of other MPs backing his leadership bid.

When Gove’s decision came through the room was stunned.

“The surprise was genuine,” according to one person in the room. “The Boris ultras were shocked and really angry. Everything was thrown into the air. We were all trying to work out what the numbers were and whether Boris was going to make it into the final two.”

Over the next two hours, Johnson’s team frantically hit the phones trying to get hold of MPs who had previously pledged support.

“He’s given the dagger back to Michael” — Johnson ally

By 11:20 a.m. it was clear that allies had drifted away and he was in danger of failing to make it to the final run-off.

“Suddenly people weren’t answering their phones or had turned them off. Others were starting to go lukewarm. The momentum was all going the wrong way.”

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Johnson, who was not at the office, made his final decision minutes before leaving for his campaign launch after taking soundings from his closest advisers.

“It was late in the day — it was certainly agonized over,” the Johnson ally said. “There were some people who wanted to fight on. But the worry was that Boris would not have prospered as much as he wanted. He would’ve been diminished in the process. He was trying to bring unity but carrying on would’ve been divisive.”

“It was a bloody brave thing to do. The easy thing would’ve been to carry on and then pull out over the weekend. In the full glare of the world, he stood down.”

The ally said that in doing so, he had damaged Gove “fatally,” by ensuring voters knew who was to blame: “He’s given the dagger back to Michael.”

“I don’t think he [Gove] thought Boris would pull out. When you think about it, what Boris has done is quite clever. He’s chosen not to run in a leadership election that he didn’t want to happen this soon. I thought it was a noble thing to have done.”

“Michael runs the risk of looking treacherous, I think that will stick.”
A European faultline

The Johnson ally said Gove pulled his support because he did not think the former London mayor committed himself to the Leave campaign or to fully pulling Britain out of the EU.

“Michael had a genuine wobble and decided to pull his support. They didn’t think Boris was focusing enough and in the end, he just couldn’t do it.”

On Europe, the source said, “Boris’s instincts were to get a compromise.”

But this was unacceptable to Gove and his ally Dominic Cummings, who had led the Brexit campaign Vote Leave. “The hand of Cummings is all over this. Boris considering EEA [membership of the European Economic Area] and budget contributions was not acceptable to them,” the source said. “He didn’t display enough clarity for them. Michael is much more ultra on Europe than Boris ever was.”

In his first interview after declaring his intention to stand, Gove suggested Johnson was not committed to leaving the EU. “After the referendum result last week I felt we needed someone to lead this country who believed heart and soul in leaving the European Union,” Gove told the BBC.

Doubts about whether a Johnson-led government would follow through on Brexit, or try to find a compromise, intensified after Johnson’s weekly column appeared in the Daily Telegraph on Monday.

The fury and sense of personal betrayal at Gove is intense.

He appeared to be trying to reassure all sides that there was no reason for panic. In doing so, his views on what should happen next seemed confused, contradictory, unachievable. Many Leavers worried that he was minimizing the need for immigration controls, which they regard as a red-line issue. It gave fuel to those who believed that Johnson had never really believed in quitting the EU in the first place.

Johnson’s allies pointed out that Gove had seen the column, suggested changes and approved it before it was published. On Thursday night ITV’s political editor Robert Peston obtained an email from Gove to Johnson, sent just after 6 p.m. on Sunday, suggesting amendments to the column. Gove’s verdict: “Overall very very good.”

Worse than the Telegraph column, a long-time Johnson supporter said, was the former mayor’s disappearance after the Brexit result. Johnson should have appeared in public immediately surrounded by “ordinary people,” this source said. As leader of the Leave campaign, he should have sought to calm anxieties. Instead, he gave one somber press conference with Gove a few hours after Cameron resigned, and spent the weekend out of sight.

“The moment was there to be seized,” the Johnson supporter said. “Instead, he went into hibernation and allowed other people to fill in the gaps.”

Adding to the shadowy role of media moguls in the back-room drama was the presence of Evgeny Lebedev, the owner of London’s Evening Standard and Independent, among Johnson’s entourage on Sunday, according to a source close to Johnson. Lebedev knew Johnson from his days as mayor of London and had regularly hosted him at his villa in Umbria, in Italy.

In a curious twist, Lebedev had also been present at Johnson’s house in February, when Johnson, Gove, and their wives decided over drinks that the two politicians would turn on their friend Cameron and front the Leave campaign, according to Vine’s column in the Daily Mail.

Gove alerted friends about his decision to run late Wednesday night. One member of Gove’s campaign received a call at 1 a.m. Thursday morning to be told he was needed to run Gove’s campaign.

The fury and sense of personal betrayal at Gove is intense.

The justice secretary had insisted repeatedly — including in a live TV appearance during the referendum campaign — that he did not want to become prime minister. However, privately he has not ruled it out, said a friend of the Goves. “It’s not that he’s suddenly decided.”

At Johnson’s press conference one Tory MP pointed the finger at George Osborne, who has a reputation for Westminster scheming. “The Chancellor’s fingerprints are all over this,” he said.

The MP Nadine Dorries, who had sat in the front row of Johnson’s press conference, had a blazing row with Gove in the Commons Thursday afternoon, according to one MP.

Cameron, meanwhile, was seen in parliament’s Members’ tea room looking “happy and relaxed.”

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