Up to 9% of voters are willing to change their minds on the strength of Boris Johnson’s arguments, according to pollsters. Should we be worried about the spiritual leader of the out campaign? Having seen the Johnson phenomenon in gestation, I think so.
By way of explanation, a little history. In the mid-1990s, soon after arriving in Brussels as a Europe correspondent, I was assigned to find the truth about a long-running Euro-myth: the claim that Brussels was to force Britain to call its chocolate “vegelate”. At that time learning about Euro-myths – smaller condoms, square strawberries, fishermen forced to wear hairnets – took up more time than explaining treaty changes.
The myths were usually funny, often absurd, sometimes traceable to a grain of truth, nearly always grossly distorted, or totally untrue. Very often they had first appeared in the Daily Telegraph.
Usually, their creator was Boris Johnson, who had for some years worked as the Telegraph’s EU correspondent, famous in the press room as a shuffling, shabbily dressed fellow, with a sharp intellect, huge ambition, and a talent for constructing myths. That mastery launched his career back then, and will be crucial to his relaunch, commenced this week, as a serious politician and Conservative party leader in waiting. He is older now and feted, but the modus operandi seems much the same.
Then, as now, he hit the ground running, for quickly he was churning out stories of plots being hatched and traps being laid for Britain. There were threats to our pink sausages and to cheese biscuits. So often the myths were about food; Johnson knew that a quick way to win readers and get a laugh was through their stomachs.
As his stories resonated, editors in London pressed their Brussels men (and a few women) to find their own myths. The Daily Star said double-decker buses were to be abolished. But Johnson’s myths were always best. The headquarters of the commission was to be blown up due to an asbestos scare.
Then came the biggest whopper of all: “Delors plan to rule Europe” ran a front-page headline in the Sunday Telegraph in May 1992, just ahead of the Danish referendum on the Maastricht treaty. Nobody could follow that except to say it was untrue, and based on thin ideas floated at a casual briefing, but denials came too late for Danish voters, who said “no”. Many attribute that to Johnson’s story.
Rebutting a Johnson myth was a thankless task and the commission itself was powerless to fight back “because what we said wasn’t funny”, as one spokesman put it at the time. Refuting the condoms story, one spokesman resorted to profanity, telling the Sun it was “bullshit”. “Otherwise,” he said, “I’d never have got my point of view in.”
Johnson’s half-truths created new reality, as I discovered while trying to untangle council directive 73,241, which set out rules on quantities of vegetable fat versus cocoa fat. Because Britain used more vegetable fat than other countries, a lowly official suggested Britain call its chocolate “vegelate”: hence the myth. There was no serious plan and no compulsion. It was what Johnson himself might describe as “piffle”.
Then, as now, he was a charmer. We knew he had been sacked by the Times for fabricating a quote, but he endeared himself by admitting that sometimes he “overegged” things. Then he’d deploy that knowing smile, as if to say, well, we all hype scoops from time to time.
The contradictions were glaring, for privately he seemed a man at ease with Europe; and knowledgable about its history. Denis MacShane, Labour’s former Europe minister, recalls crossing the central lobby of the Commons one day accompanied by the historian and Guardian columnist Timothy Garton Ash. Boris Johnson appeared: “Why! If it isn’t Metternich and Talleyrand,” he said. His father, Stanley, was a senior European commission official and an MEP. Boris himself attended the European school in Brussels before Eton. He even tried to become an MEP after leaving his job as a correspondent.
But that was then. Now it seems clear to Johnson that his safest route for moving towards No 10 involves a return to mythology. His exposition of the case for Brexit, published in last Monday’s Telegraph, showed all the traits. He even recycled his myths on “Euro-condoms and the great war against the British prawn cocktail flavour crisp”.
And there was new mythology: the suggestion that Brexit could lead to a second referendum, allowing Britain to negotiate a better settlement from Brussels. The prime minister himself moved to rebut it, but as European commission officials discovered long ago, a Johnson myth is not easily dismantled.
From adjacent desks in Brussels, correspondents witnessed Johnson shaping the narrative that morphed into our present-day populist Euroscepticism. His decision to back Brexit now may well turn out to be a miscalculation, and the idea that Britain is best out of the EU his most foolish Euro-myth of all, but do not doubt that it was ruthless calculation. Then as now, he shows imagination and precision. Remember that in the months to come. Great myths do not create themselves.
Sarah Helm is a former Brussels correspondent and diplomatic editor of the Independent.