David Cameron and Boris Johnson: the friends who fell out | Michael Cockerell

Eton, Oxford, the race for the premiership, the EU referendum – but what next for these two men whose lives have been intertwined for 40 years?

David Cameron wishes he had Boris Johnson’s charisma and desperately wanted Bojo on his side in the referendum campaign. Had that happened, Thursday’s vote might have been rather different. But Johnson refused to commit himself until Cameron called the referendum in late February.

When the prime minister returned from Brussels claiming victory in his renegotiations, Johnson went incommunicado. He sent a text to Cameron warning him that he was gravitating towards leave but hadn’t finally decided.

Johnson drove to his Oxfordshire bolthole to make up his mind. He was due to deliver his well-rewarded column for the Daily Telegraph. He wrote two articles – one putting the case for the status quo, the other for Brexit. I was told by someone who saw both drafts that the case for staying in was the more powerful and persuasive.

When I put this to Johnson on the campaign trail, he huffed and puffed. “I don’t know your source, but it is true that I did write two articles,” he said. “And the second one said that, irrespective of my objections to the way that the EU was going, in order to support my party and the prime minister it would be better to stay in. And I thought in the end that wasn’t a good enough reason.”

Cameron learned by text from Johnson, five minutes before it was made public, of the then London mayor’s decision to out himself as an outer. The prime minister said publicly he was “disappointed”. That was putting it mildly. The word from No 10 was: “The fury here is uncontrollable.”

Johnson pooh-poohs any suggestion that his decision represented what one Tory MP calls “a naked grab for power and the premiership”. Churchill’s grandson Sir Nicholas Soames describes himself as great friend of Johnson and says: “Boris is not an outer – he’s told me that. But he believes the next Tory leader will be an outer – which I don’t think is necessarily true. But I believe that contributed to Boris’s Damascene conversion to the leave cause.”

The prime minister said publicly that “Boris remains a friend”, but he hoped Johnson’s decision wouldn’t turn the referendum campaign into “a Tory psycho-drama”. And he turned down all requests to appear in a “blue on blue” head-to-head debate, which Johnson was happy to have.

The referendum campaign is the latest and most significant chapter in the up-and-down relationship between the two men, which goes back nearly 40 years.

They’ve been friends and rivals since they were at Eton and both said they wanted to be prime minister one day. Then Oxford, where they famously appeared together in the Bullingdon photo that they would like to see airbrushed out of history. They became MPs for nearby Cotswold seats in 2001, and Cameron – the younger man – beat Johnson to the top of the greasy pole.

For Johnson the referendum campaign has turned into one elongated opportunity to display to the public his credentials for the job of prime minister that he covets. To start with, he seemed to fall well below the level of events with his attack on “the part-Kenyan” President Obama, seen by some as dog-whistle racism. That was followed by Johnson telling the Telegraph that the Brussels bureaucrats were trying to unify Europe, as Hitler had done. “That was a bloody awful stupid thing to say,” according to Soames.

Cameron admitted publicly that the campaign was damaging his relationship with Johnson: “We are still friends – just not such good friends.”

It descended a further notch after Johnson and Michael Gove sent an open letter to Cameron accusing him of corroding public trust with lies about immigration. Cameron hit back by publicly accusing the leave campaign of “resorting to total untruths to con people into taking a leap in the dark”.

By the end of the campaign, Johnson had become more sure-footed. As his friend – and a remainer – Soames puts it: “Boris bogged it at the start, but less since. He’s much more polished and credible. But it doesn’t alter the fact he’s wrong.”

Johnson’s extended audition has done no harm to his chances of succeeding his frenemy Cameron. If it’s a leave vote, he’ll be the standout candidate to take over; and if it’s a remain vote, the fact he was prepared to back Brexit will play well with the Tory membership, who have the final vote in a leadership election. So not for the first time in his career, Johnson will collect on his each-way bet. Or as he puts it, “my policy on cake is having it and eating it”.

Michael Cockerell’s film on how Cameron and Johnson have fought the referendum campaign is on Newsnight on BBC2 tonight


Michael Cockerell

The GuardianTramp

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