Johnson and Johnson: UK sibling rivalry at heart of EU vote

Dmitry ZAKS
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The debate tearing at the Johnson family is identical to one that has soured moods in households across Britain since the island kingdom voted in 2016 to end its four decades of membership in the European project

The debate tearing at the Johnson family is identical to one that has soured moods in households across Britain since the island kingdom voted in 2016 to end its four decades of membership in the European project (AFP Photo/Adrian DENNIS)

Bath (United Kingdom) (AFP) - Rachel Johnson glanced at her phone during her European Parliament election campaign launch and saw her Brexit-backing brother Boris, the former foreign secretary, revealing he will run for prime minister.

Despite her moment in the media spotlight being somewhat stolen, the seasoned 53-year-old journalist and one-time reality television star -- who wants to keep Britain in the EU -- appeared unfazed.

Her brother's premiership ambitions have been an open secret since he quit Prime Minister Theresa May's cabinet in frustration at her Brexit strategy last July.

If bookies' frontrunner Boris becomes the next Conservative leader when May goes, he would push a more gung-ho pro-Brexit platform -- the antithesis to his sister's beliefs.

"I understand this sense of not wanting other people telling you what to do, people you haven't voted for. I get it," Rachel said about Brexit supporters.

"But I think we've been stronger in the EU and I think the EU is stronger with us in it. And for that reason, I regard this as an existential question."

The debate tearing at the Johnson family is identical to one that has soured moods in households across Britain since the island kingdom voted in 2016 to end its four decades of membership in the European project.

Boris is adamant that it marked the start of a bright and independent future. Rachel is horrified at the idea of Britain losing its European identity.

"I couldn't look back on my fifties and have my grandchildren say to me: 'Grandma, what did you do when Nigel Farage took over the country?'."

Former UKIP leader Farage's new Brexit Party is campaigning on the single issue of getting Britain out of the EU by any means and as quickly as possible.

Polls suggest his party finishing first, with nearly a third of the vote, when Britons cast their ballots on Thursday.

- 'Johnson in Brussels' -

In contrast, Rachel's nascent pro-EU party, Change UK, is in the low single figures.

Formed by a small group of disgruntled former Labour and Conservative lawmakers trying to fill a middle ground void created by the Brexit divide, it is struggling to break through.

But Rachel's own chances in the European elections look decent.

Her party is polling strongest in the southwest England constituency where she is standing.

The mother-of-three has the added advantage of heading the party list.

And then there is the Johnson brand name.

She is just a year younger than Boris and topped with the same mop of blonde hair that keeps spilling into her eyes.

The two are charismatic and filled with a youthful energy that seems to draw in the people around them.

If her brother becomes prime minister and she is elected, could it set up a political rivalry with a unique diplomatic dimension?

Victory for both, some have suggested, could turn Rachel into an unlikely informal mediator between Brussels and a UK government headed by Boris in the heat of history-making Brexit talks.

"That's a great job description and I would do that job with pleasure," Rachel told AFP during a stump appearance Thursday in southwest England's Roman spa town of Bath -- her very first as a candidate in next week's European Parliament elections.

"I could be his Johnson in Brussels -- like our man in Moscow."

- 'We are all doomed' -

Yet Change UK's broader efforts to resonate with voters have been far from smooth.

Her campaign video froze part-way through and she ended up being introduced to voters at Bath Cricket Club with an awkward silence.

Her aides tried to help out by launching a passionate round of applause. The couple of dozen elderly supporters who turned up eventually joined in.

Rachel seemed undeterred as she strolled into the room with a confident grin.

She drew natural laughs and cheers during a snappy eight-minute campaign speech -- her first -- delivered without any notes.

Its message seemed simple and honest: Change UK must keep fighting even if it gets thumped on May 23.

"If the Brexit Party does as well as the polls suggests it will do, that will confirm the government in its mission to deliver a devastating no-deal Brexit," she said.

"And then we are all doomed."