Dave and Boris still fighting on the playing fields of Eton
Published 22/02/2016 | 02:30
One day, someone will write a book about David Cameron and Boris Johnson. The problem will be that if it's accurate, no one will believe it. After all, the international standing of a nation hanging on the complicated and not entirely mature relationship between two men from the same school and university dining club is the stuff of clichéd fiction, not reality.
To listen to each man talk about the other is to be in no doubt that theirs is an intense personal rivalry, and yet also something else, rather more familiar, and even affectionate, than the typical political duel.
They may be competing on the national stage to show who is best, but you get the impression the audience they are playing to is an altogether smaller group: members of the extended family of privilege that both joined when they were boys at Eton College.
Ah, Eton. Many of the analyses of both men that mention their school do so without insight, overlooking the fact that most voters don't care about their schooling anywhere as much as the pundits do. But as people who know them well can tell you, they themselves care, these two Etonians. They care very much.
Mr Johnson, below left, is a little older than Mr Cameron. At school, he was a star, a scholar and a prefect, over-talented and over-confident in a place that prides itself on producing boys with unrivalled amounts of both. By contrast, Mr Cameron, below right, was relatively ordinary, by the standards of the place, at least: no scholarship, no prefect's waistcoat. Only one of them talked of one day being "World King" and only one of them was regarded as a future national leader. And it wasn't the one who is now Prime Minister.
Imagine how that plays out now. Mr Cameron beat the star of stars to the top prize, yet Mr Johnson has never seemed to acknowledge that victory, much less respect it. He can rarely resist the chance to tweak the tail of the man he sometimes describes as "Cameron Minor", a little chap from one of the lower forms.
And Mr Cameron wouldn't be human if he did not feel a tiny niggle about Boris and his antics. Here he is, a PM at the peak of his powers who has made a genuinely historic gambit over Europe and all anyone wanted to know was if Mr Johnson was going to deign to back him or not. Rightly so, too. Never mind the fuss about policy details. Personality matters more here, or at least two personalities. Mr Cameron is the Remain camp's biggest asset. But the advantage he gives could be cancelled out by a "Boris for Britain" call to Leave.
Imagine how Mr Cameron feels about the prospect of Mr Johnson deciding the outcome of his European gamble - and thus, the manner in which his premiership ends. As for Mr Johnson, imagine being the cleverest of the clever, someone extraordinary, and seeing the greatest jewel pocketed by someone, well, ordinary. That is an awfully big itch to go unscratched.
So who's winning between Dave and Boris today? The man with the big job or the man with the first-name popularity?
Well, we are fast approaching what could finally be a moment of clarity. Europe may well decide the duel between Cameron Minor and the World King once and for all. The man who leads the winning campaign in the referendum will not just secure himself a place in British history, he will claim a much more personal victory too.