LONDON – As U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson burnishes his euro-skeptic credentials for a possible Conservative Party leadership bid, secret polling has emerged showing he was unpopular with voters and had to be kept out of the public eye during this year’s election campaign, a former government aide has said.
Nick Timothy said the Tories focused their election campaign on Theresa May because their private research showed “nobody in the Cabinet is popular — keep them away, even Boris.” Timothy resigned as May’s co-chief of staff after the results. Going into the election, May was more popular than any of her colleagues individually and the Conservative’s brand overall, the research showed.
Timothy’s comments, in an interview for a forthcoming book on the June vote, emerged after Johnson, the former mayor of London, launched what some observers regarded as a direct attempt to undermine the prime minister. Johnson went out on a limb on Saturday with a 4,000-word essay about his “glorious” vision for post-Brexit Britain, in the Tory-supporting Daily Telegraph newspaper.
On Sunday, Johnson’s colleague, Home Secretary Amber Rudd, accused him of “back seat driving” with his rival plan for leaving the European Union, while Johnson became embroiled in a row with the U.K. statistics watchdog over his claim in the story that Britain pays £350 million ($475 million) a week to the EU.
May will refresh her own Brexit vision with a major speech on Friday in Florence, Italy, amid speculation she’ll offer to continue paying into the EU budget in exchange for access to the single market during a transition phase. In his Telegraph article, Johnson argued the U.K. shouldn’t pay to access the single market for goods and services — countering a plan floated by Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond and Brexit Secretary David Davis.
The foreign secretary also revived the much-criticized claim that by leaving the EU, Britain will free up vast sums to spend on health care — a suggestion thought to have swayed votes in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
David Norgrove, chairman of the U.K. Statistics Authority, wrote to Johnson on Sunday to say he was “disappointed” that he’d repeated the £350 million figure. “This confuses gross and net contributions,” Norgrove wrote. “It is a clear misuse of official statistics.”
Johnson hit back at Norgrove but also made a show of loyalty toward May. He tweeted that he was “looking forward to” May’s Florence speech, adding: “All behind Theresa for a glorious Brexit.” Johnson led the campaign to take Britain out of the EU during last year’s referendum.
The book, “Betting the House: the Inside Story of the 2017 Election,” chronicles the history of difficulties between Johnson and May, dating back to the contest to succeed David Cameron as Conservative Party leader when he quit the day after the U.K. voted for Brexit.
It reports a memo from Crosby Textor Fullbrook, the Conservatives’ election consultants, to May’s team. Dated April 2017, the memo details findings from focus-group and polling research. May was “the most favorably viewed individual tested,” the memo said. “Of all the other Conservative individuals tested, only Ruth Davidson has a net favorable rating.”
May’s Tories lost their majority in the June 8 election, a result that weakened the prime minister and sparked renewed speculation about Johnson as a potential successor.
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