The British media in the run-up to Theresa May's speech in Florence was concerned with how she was too weak to fire her foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who had written a supposedly unauthorised essay on post-Brexit Britain for the Telegraph. That did not seem to fit with Johnson and more pro-EU chancellor Philip Hammond both accompanying the prime minister to Florence. After the event unattributed media briefings were made about Johnson forcing May to re-write her speech to fit with his vision, followed by denials of such claims by the Brexit secretary David Davis. The key factor in all of this is that it overshadowed media reporting of the Liberal Democrat and Labour party conferences. It was a ploy taken straight out of the 2016 Vote Leave playbook.
During the early stages of the unofficial period of the EU referendum campaign the British media reported it as a leadership challenge by Boris Johnson against David Cameron. This concerned some within Vote Leave because there was little focus on the issues that they wish to put to the electorate. However it became apparent that this obsession with Johnson's leadership ambitions meant that the remain campaign's message was being drowned out. Johnson's main value to the leave campaign was not what he said, but that the media and remain campaigners were obsessed with making personal attacks against him. This was most evident at the showpiece Wembley Arena debate a few days before the vote when remain speakers descended into negative campaigning against Johnson, while the leave representatives talked about the issues.
The role of Johnson's journalism was also lifted from the Vote Leave playbook. A major feature of the remain campaign was the visit of Barack Obama, so that he could make a major intervention on behalf of the campaign to stay in the EU. Boris Johnson wrote an article for the Sun in which he referenced what some others had said about Obama having a hatred of the British Empire due to his part-Kenyan ancestry. Johnson knew that the remain side was constantly primed to look for anything they could use to accuse the leave side of racism. So he took one for the team and ensured that media coverage was all about his reporting of comments about Obama (quickly descending into claims that Johnson had made the claim himself) instead of focusing on Obama's contribution to the remain cause. Obama's visit was a failure in that it failed to shore up the remain campaign, in part because remain activists and their media supporters switched their focus to accusing Johnson of racism.
Johnson's pro-Brexit Telegraph article was immediately leapt on as disloyalty to the prime minister and the launch of a leadership challenge. In reality it was a classic case of misdirection. It turned media attention away from Labour shortly after they had made a surprise shift in favour of challenging the government's version of Brexit. Instead of the media concentrating on this Labour shift in the run-up to their party conference, the Conservatives used the media obsession with the soap opera of leadership challenges to keep the focus on Theresa May's much-vaunted speech in Florence about the UK's future relationship with the EU. As an act of misdirection it was pure magic.
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