Boris & Jeremy abandon principles. How will history judge them?

Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn and Former Mayor of London Boris Johnson © Reuters
It’s not unusual for politicians to cast aside dearly held principles or personal beliefs. But the positions taken by Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson in the Brexit campaign bring pragmatic politics to a whole new level.

Johnson is really a Remain man, and Corbyn has been a committed Leave supporter for over 40 years. What would Winston Churchill think? 

As MPs enter the door of the magnificent House of Common's chamber there are two statues. On one side stands Winston Churchill, on the other a statue of David Lloyd George. If I'm passing the Common's door in Westminster, no matter what my rush, I will always stop to gaze at two of the greatest British Prime Ministers, and note that it is a toe of Lloyd George that is rubbed shiny. It is the statue of the 'Welsh Wizard' Lloyd George and not the historically better known Churchill that MPs rub for luck. 

Politicians admire Lloyd George, devious, ruthless and utterly without scruple as a better technician. Nobody ever knew what he actually believed in. Churchill, a man of many faults, had one shining commitment - his political battles were almost always over issues he held dear to his heart. For so long whether it was India or the cause of Edward VIII, Churchill backed losers. 

Another historically important vote, Brexit, approaches. And two British politicians, Tory MP Boris Johnson and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn have assumed pivotal positions on opposite sides of the debate. Corbyn is campaigning for the Remain side, but his political career up to this moment was devoted to opposing the European Union. Boris Johnson is the acceptable celebrity face of the Leave campaign, though friends believe he is privately committed to the European Union. 

Nasty, pragmatic politics of personal advancement and self-preservation, that Lloyd George would have been familiar with, have dictated these contradictory positions. Boris's stance is a little less subtle than Corbyn's. 

Close friends believe he is pro Europe. The idiosyncratic Oxford-educated former journalist was born in New York to English parents. His father was a member of the European Parliament and Johnson spent many of his formative years in Brussels. Boris, as he is universally known, has spoken of his love of that city. He can trace his cosmopolitan family history to Turkey, Switzerland and Russia and he has Muslim, Jewish and Christian ancestors. 

Johnson didn't announce which side he was backing until February 21. Until then, British Prime Minister David Cameron believed he would back Remain.

© Andrew Winning

Days before Johnson announced he would support Brexit he told many close friends, including Roland Rudd, a longtime associate, that he would support the campaign to stay. 

Rudd, the treasurer of the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, said Johnson had “clearly changed his mind over a weekend.” Rudd, in a state of shock last February, said: “Like a lot of people, I have conversations with him, pretty recent, and it was absolutely clear he was for 'in.' Absolutely clear. Not any shade of doubt at all.” 

Johnson had lunch with Conservative Justice Secretary Michael Gove that weekend. Gove told him he was backing Brexit and Johnson feared being outflanked. That Gove, a Cabinet member and relative moderate, was going against Cameron meant Johnson could lose his position as chief alternative to the prime minister. He decided he was out of team Cameron and he was backing Britain to leave Europe. Johnson had calculated that at 51, two years older than Cameron, this could be his only chance to fatally damage the PM and take his job. The Conservatives have been split for over 20 years over Europe, and with at least 140 of the 330 Tory MPs and six Cabinet ministers backing Brexit, he gambled. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was backing Boris and Brexit, and recklessly promoting the uncertain course of taking Britain out of Europe.

Jeremy Corbyn, another anti-establishment figure, for once in his career, could not afford to be reckless. The followers of former Labour Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had never wanted Corbyn to be leader. Those Blairites and Brownites, having spent more than two decades taking the Labour Party away from the left and into the center, didn’t want a true Socialist taking over the party. In a reaction to the abysmal showing of the deeply unimpressive Ed Miliband in last year's General Election, the Labour Party grassroots rebelled against the neo Liberals and chose Corbyn. However, his leadership has been assailed from all sides since, and he appears to be permanently on the cusp of being ousted. 

Positions have reversed in British politics since 1975. Back then a Labour government was split on Britain's membership of what was then called the European Economic Community. The government held a referendum but most of its supporters wanted to leave, so it was left to Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher to lead the Remain campaign and she convinced two-thirds of Britons to stay. Corbyn voted to leave in 1975 and he would almost certainly do so again if his position were more secure. He is from the old Euroskeptic left of the Labour Party and sees the EU as a vast Capitalist conspiracy that disregards the interests of the working man. 

Corbyn tried to go against powerful figures in his own parliamentary party on intervention in Syria. 

He opposed airstrikes, but his colleague Hilary Benn sided with Cameron. Pacifist Corbyn lost that one and the internal divisions the split caused traumatized him. This time he has chosen not to take on influential pro-European figures in his party. 

Corbyn arrived too late in the game. He did not make his first pro-European intervention until mid April, two months after Cameron called the referendum. 

He has been the silent man of the campaign since refusing to appear alongside the Tories. He went on holidays in May and his first major television appearance speaking for the Remain campaign came on Monday night. 

His heart isn't in it. He may not see at as an existential fight, and many in Labour see this as a fight between Tory factions. 

Some in the Remain campaign and in the supporting press put Corbyn's lukewarm support down to more than apathy. The Economist magazine recently speculated on whether Corbyn was intentionally trying to 'sabotage' the campaign. 

If the Leave side wins, the Conservative Party would collapse, riven by internal divisions, and would emerge with a new leader. If a snap election was called, Corbyn could even have a chance of forming a Labour Government against all the odds. 

Westminster, the 'mother of all parliaments' has become a cauldron of recrimination with many others besides Johnson and Corbyn casting principles aside to indulge in regressive and deeply cynical politics. 

Moderate Tories have been forced to align themselves with Nigel Farage's UKIP. The more the respectable core of the Leave campaign say this political fight is not about immigration the less you believe them. Michael Gove said at the weekend that he 'shudders' when he sees advertisements such as the one Farage recently issued. 

The billboard had a long line of dark skinned immigrants, standing behind Farage. Johnson, he of the cosmopolitan background, has aligned himself with this and his deeply suspect motives serve only to confuse voters further. 

Cameron hasn't succeeded in explaining exactly why Britain should remain in Europe. And this is the man Corbyn has tied his political future to, an elitist, establishment Tory prime minister. Corbyn's shallow reasons for backing Remain have also confused voters inclined towards that decision.

Johnson may emerge in a strong position in the short term no matter which way the vote goes. Corbyn will emerge further discredited whether it’s Yes or No. 

The lives of 60 million people depend on the decision made this Thursday. Few, whatever way they believe the result should go, could say that the conduct of the politicians at the center of this divisive campaign has not been distasteful. 

The tone of the campaign changed dramatically when for once it was not about shallow political game playing. A woman, Labour MP Jo Cox, lost her life when a pro Leave man shot and stabbed her on a street in the north of England. Campaigning on all sides stopped and cordiality appeared to return. Yet the main players have returned to the fray in recent days. Corbyn appeared on TV on Monday, but as is his wont made little impact. As this is essentially a vote that emerged from an internal Tory squabble it is natural that the Conservative rivals took center stage. 

Johnson, bombastically assumed the rhetorical flourishes of his personal hero Churchill, sparking memories of the World War II leader's 'Finest Hour' speech. 

He urged voters to seize the opportunity to “change the whole course of European history.” He called on the people to “take back control of this great country's destiny.” 

Cameron directly invoked Churchill when he was accused by a TV studio audience of being a 21st Century Neville Chamberlain' - a Tory prime minister no English politician wants to be compared with. 

He replied: “At my office I sit two yards away from the Cabinet room where Winston Churchill decided in May 1940 to fight on against Hitler. The best and greatest decision perhaps anyone has made in this country.” 

He said Churchill “didn't want to be alone” and “he didn't quit on freedom.” As Corbyn and Johnson ponder their possible pyrrhic and temporary victories they should consider those statues of Lloyd George and Churchill. It is Lloyd George who workaday politicians worship. However, Churchill, who for so long fought for losing causes he believed in, finally found a cause worth fighting for. And they should ask which politician achieved mythical, hero status in history and which is largely forgotten. 

John Lee for RT. John Lee is a journalist and political analyst based in Ireland. He has reported on politics and politicians from London to Paris and Cape Town to Washington.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.