David Cameron loses Michael Gove and Boris Johnson to Brexit campaign

Meet the Brexiters. PA/Stefan Rousseau

David Cameron, the UK prime minister, has announced that the referendum on whether Britain will leave the EU is to be held on June 23. This marks the beginning of a four-month campaign that will have enormous repercussions for his country, his party and his own legacy.

Cameron left gruelling negotiations in Brussels with a deal that he claims has resulted in Britain’s concerns being addressed and the sovereignty of Britain being assured. The country now has “special status” in the EU, he said after the meeting with fellow national leaders.

So far, so predictable. There has never been any doubt that Cameron would emerge with an agreement. The alternative was to recommend Britain leave the EU – something the PM could never have done.

One of the rules of EU negotiation is that everyone has to win. Whatever the agreement, politicians turn to their national media to claim that they have secured a great deal. In normal circumstances this is accepted and people move on and forget about it.

But the same rules don’t apply back home in Britain this time. Now, following a meeting with his cabinet ministers, several high-profile figures have confirmed that they will campaign for a Brexit. Cabinet ministers Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and the Prime Minister’s friend and ally, Michael Gove will all be joining the Leave campaign.

Home secretary Theresa May and business secretary Sajid Javid have decided to campaign to remain, alongside their party leader.

Cabinet split

With British voters unlikely to be particularly swayed in either direction as a result of this deal, the negotiation was to a larger degree about the Conservative Party.

The decision to hold a referendum at all was an attempt to limit the endemic conflict within the party over Europe. Cameron knew that he could not recommend a yes to the EU vote without presenting a renegotiated membership.

This deal won’t please the hardline eurosceptics, but then no deal would. The goal was to win over the big beasts such as Gove and Boris Johnson. Cameron’s failure to convince Gove provides the leave group with a senior figure to galvanise the campaign. The problem for Cameron is that the leave campaign is no longer focused on divisive outsiders such as Nigel Farage and George Galloway but has senior members of the Cabinet involved too.

Johnson’s part is equally important. His slow political dance has kept everyone guessing about whether he will campaign for in or out, almost overshadowing Cameron in the process. He confirmed that he will also campaign to leave the EU the day after the cabinet meeting.

BoJo for No

As he so often does, Johnson has played almost pure politics. He is known for his euroscepticism and made it clear that he didn’t think much of the deal on the table in Brussels before it was agreed. But he is also the mayor of multicultural London, whose virtues he extols and whose economic success depends on a financial sector that is committed, on the whole, to remaining in Europe.

Who is on the other end of that rope? PA

Johnson has managed to wring every ounce of attention out of his position of ambiguity. His stance has been decided not on the substance of the deal but on the political reaction. He has considered Cameron’s chances of winning the referendum and how much support he would lose by backing him. Johnson has calculated the best outcome for him personally.

If the British people vote to leave in June, Cameron will have little choice but to resign and Johnson could be in pole position to take over as leader.

Cameron is starting a long campaign on the back foot. For the next few weeks, the discussion will focus on the negotiations and what they mean, rather than the benefits of British membership. Meanwhile, anti-EU Conservatives have an opportunity to claim the high ground by focusing on the failures of the negotiation, as Grayling has done already.

Cameron has had a tough few days, it looks like the coming weeks are going to be tougher still. Not only is British membership of the EU on the line, but so is his future.