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BRITAIN’S BROMANTIC TRAGEDY

FRIENDS AND RIVALS FOR MOST OF THEIR LIVES, TOP CONSERVATIVES DAVID CAMERON AND BORIS JOHNSON ARE NOW IN OPEN WARFARE OVER THE COUNTRY’S ROLE IN THE EU

The four young women who make up the string quartet Bond hoisted their electrical instruments and threw themselves into a rendition of one of their hits. Looking on from their dinner tables in the ballroom of the Grosvenor House Hotel on London’s Park Lane on this mid-March evening were 500 of the most powerful figures in British politics, media and finance. They had come to celebrate the 70th birthday of billionaire philanthropist and former Conservative Party donor Lord Michael Ashcroft, a former deputy chairman of Britain’s ruling party. There was no sign, however, of the most powerful person in the party— British Prime Minister David Cameron. He and the host had fallen out. Also absent from the extravagant bash were most of the senior officials from the party Ashcroft had for many years bankrolled.

In the runup to the event, Cameron had let it be known that he would consider it an act of disloyalty for government ministers to attend the festivities. Many stayed away. But there, seated at the top table, was another powerful Conservative, Boris Johnson. If the then-mayor of London had received the message from his party leader, he had decided to ignore it.

Johnson had recently alienated himself from Cameron, his old friend and rival. Since they first met at Eton, Britain’s most prestigious private boys’ school, the two men have lived lives frequently in tandem—moving on to Oxford University and later to politics, and generally supporting each other. Both are highly competitive and were confident they had what it took to become prime minister. Cameron got there first; Johnson became mayor of Britain’s vast capital—a good job but not the top job. For years, the relationship between these arch-frenemies has been the most fascinating, if slow-moving, story in British politics.

PERFECT COUPLE: Cameron’s wife, Samantha, seen here in 1995 before their marriage, is the daughter of a baronet.
PREVIOUS SPREAD: PETER MACDIARMID/GETTY

On February 21, shortly before Ashcroft’s party, the tension that had been building for decades between these two privileged members of the British elite finally became a public battle—one whose outcome will likely decide the next leader of the world’s fifth-largest economy and one of America’s most important allies. Johnson publicly declared he would be campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union, in direct opposition to Cameron, who called the referendum but is backing the Remain campaign.

Johnson’s announcement—on the issue that has repeatedly divided the Conservative Party over the past three decades—added personal drama to the historic decision facing the British electorate on June 23: whether to remain part of the economic and political bloc that formed in the wake of two catastrophic wars in Europe to bring peace and prosperity to the continent. The now-public contest between Johnson and Cameron will result in either the defeat and possible resignation of a sitting British prime minister or a potentially fatal blow to the ambitions of his rival, Johnson, who may be the most intellectually capable and popular politician of his generation.

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Friends and rivals for most of their lives, top Conservatives David Cameron and Boris Johnson are now in open warfare over Britain’s role in the EU. by Isabel Oakeshott.
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