THE CAMPAIGN to get Britain out of the European Union has been dealt a blow after Boris Johnson told senior Eurosceptics he does not want to be their leader.
The Daily Express has learnt that the charismatic London Mayor, who steps down in May, held informal talks with a senior Conservative backbenchers before Christmas over the role.
But, in what many will see as a setback to the whole campaign, he made it clear he did not want to lead the Brexit drive.
It is understood he said: “The trouble is, I am not an ‘outer’.” Mr Johnson was widely considered a Eurosceptic.
In November, when asked about joining the campaign, he only said he was “waiting” for Prime Minister David Cameron’s renegotiation.
But he signalled that he could lead the campaign to free Britain from Brussels by adding: “There is an attractive and alternative future [to staying in], we should be thinking about it.”
It is understood there are still hopes he can be persuaded to join. A senior figure said: “Boris is still flirting with the idea, even if he is not a believer. The problem is that if he does not believe we should leave it will be very difficult for him.”
The revelation comes after briefings that Mr Cameron has offered the London Mayor a job in the Cabinet as early as February if he agrees to back him in the referendum.
At the weekend, the Prime Minister made it clear that he would be campaigning for Britain to stay in the EU, scotching talk that he might recommend leaving if his renegotiations fail.
However, sources in Vote Leave have always made it clear that they would prefer Mr Johnson to front their campaign, describing the Prime Minister as “toxic”.
Last month, a source said: “In a TV debate, if there was a choice between Cameron and Boris, you’d want Boris.”
Mr Johnson’s refusal could allow Home Secretary Theresa May to step in. A leading Tory Eurosceptic MP described Mrs May as “a belief-free zone” but added that she “could be persuaded” because of her ambitions to become Tory leader.
He said: “Whether we win or lose [the referendum], the next leader of the Conservatives will be a Eurosceptic.”
Ukip leader Nigel Farage has said he believes Mr Johnson or Mrs May’s involvement could convince Tory voters.
Last week, he said: “I know there are lots who are very Eurosceptic and who want to vote to leave or may be persuaded to vote to leave but indeed if Theresa and Boris will come on board that will help persuade them.”
There are two groups vying to lead the exit campaign: Vote Leave is backed by Tory, Labour and Ukip MPs and chaired by Labour donor John Mills; Leave EU is backed by Mr Farage and millionaire Aaron Banks.