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Cameron faces Johnson challenge in Brexit campaign
[LONDON] British Prime Minister David Cameron has got off to a tough start in the EU referendum campaign, scoring a victory in Brussels but then seeing six ministers and dozens of his Conservative MPs including Mayor of London Boris Johnson back Brexit, experts said.
The charismatic Johnson came out of his house in north London on Sunday and declared that he would be supporting a "Leave" vote in the June 23 referendum on EU membership, despite an appeal from Cameron to change his mind.
Anand Menon, a European politics professor at King's College London, told AFP that Mr Johnson's endorsement would give the Brexit campaign "traction" but it was not yet clear how prominent his role would be.
"We have to wait see what the tone is going to be. There are two ways this can fall: a disagreement and back together afterwards, or it can turn nasty" against Mr Johnson, who is seen as a potential successor to Mr Cameron.
Asked about the Conservative parliamentary split, he said: "If over 100 MPs are in favour of something the PM is explicitly against, it's hard not to describe that as a divided party."
John Springford, a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, said Mr Cameron "did well politically" at last week's Brussels summit and has done "the best that he could" with Conservative eurosceptics.
Mr Cameron has hailed the deal secured in Brussels, saying it will protect Britain's status as a non-eurozone member, exclude it from the political aim of "ever closer union" and curb some welfare benefits for EU workers in Britain.
After the cabinet meeting on Saturday, six ministers said they would support vote "Leave" on the referendum question: "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?"
The decision of Justice Secretary Michael Gove, a close personal friend and ally of Cameron, to support "Leave" was also a blow but the endorsement of heavyweights like Home Secretary Theresa May, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon was seen as crucial.
Whatever the arguments of the for and against camps, experts said it was unlikely the details of the EU deal would have much weight in a campaign that will hinge on larger issues about national prosperity and sovereignty.
"The deal won't do that much to convince anybody," Mr Springford said, adding that aside from the most ardent EU supporters and opponents "those in the middle will vote on the big arguments about economy and security".
Mr Menon also said it was "unbelievable" that anyone would decide their vote based on the substance of the EU deal.
"Come June 23, no one is going to be talking about the specifics of the deal," he told AFP.
As the campaign gets underway, Mr Cameron will also have the backing of the City of London, Europe's biggest financial hub, and the main centre-left opposition Labour Party.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has dismissed Mr Cameron's EU negotiations as a "sideshow" but has said he will campaign for Britain to stay in the EU to protect investments, jobs and worker and consumer protection rights.
The Economist weekly argued that the voters' decision will hinge largely on their views on Mr Cameron, who does not want to go down in history as the prime minister who led Britain out of the European Union.
"Nothing will matter as much as Mr Cameron's standing," it said, adding that his "personal appeal and abilities" would be key.
"If it currently looks like the 'In' campaign will prevail, that is because he remains relatively well-liked and respected (with the emphasis on relatively)," it said.
There is little scope for complacency though.
Mr Springford identified two more "risks" for Mr Cameron that could turn public opinion against the European Union - a massive new influx of migrants into Europe and a fresh eurozone crisis as Greece prepares for an important debt repayment in June.