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John Major’s attack was fun. But remain can’t win a Brexit popularity contest

As the Brexit polls have become ever more unnerving, supporters of the remain cause on the left have at least been able to console themselves by settling in to absorb the spectacle of the blue-on-blue pile-up. Yesterday, John Major made it grey-on-blue, with an assault on Boris Johnson on the Andrew Marr Show that was as incendiary as it was accurate – which is to say, very. Boris, he said, was a “court jester” who could not expect loyalty were he to lead the Conservative party; the campaign of which he is the figurehead was “deceitful”. A few minutes later, Johnson sat down to talk to Marr himself. The sight of one Conservative shuffling off to make room for another who he has just comprehensively insulted could hardly be more potent as an image for the direction of this campaign.

John Major: NHS at risk from Brexit 'pythons' Johnson and Gove

Meanwhile, it has been reported that No 10 vetoed the release of a poster, in homage to last year’s successful Miliband-Salmond mash-up, of Johnson in Nigel Farage’s pocket. If there is anyone on the left who is disappointed at this show of Tory restraint, they shouldn’t be. For evidence of the effect that an ever more personal tone will have on the debate, look to last week’s audiences with David Cameron and Michael Gove on Sky News.

When it was the audience’s turn to question Cameron, the air seemed to thrum with hostility; most of the questions descended into an opportunity for a generalised slap at the prime minister, and no attack seemed too ad hominem or too far from the subject at hand to meet with the generalised approval of the crowd – even, it seemed, the ones who support remain. Gove, in contrast, was given a basically respectful hearing by an audience that may, for the most part, have had only the haziest sense of his political life before this campaign got underway. Whoever this odd little man is, the feeling seemed to be, we ought to at least listen to him before we make our mind up.

As a matter of tactics as well as principle, there is nothing to be gained for remain in going down this path

This is why unleashing the hounds on Johnson is a bad idea. In any version of this debate that devolves into an argument about the personalities of the participants, the prime minister is bound to lose. This is no special indictment of him: most prime ministers of six years’ standing would probably find themselves in the same position. But it is a reminder that as a matter of tactics as well as principle, there is nothing to be gained for remain in going down this path, and that if they do so, they may turn a corner to find a Boris-shaped figure gleefully wielding a knife of his own.

Barbs aimed at Johnson can really hardly make a scratch; the charges that he’s jester – or even deceitful – are basically priced in. Make the same approach legitimate for the leave campaign, on the other hand, and you risk making the debate a referendum on the popularity of the prime minister, which is always bound to be a more salient issue than the popularity of the former mayor of London. In the short term, this might be quite an entertaining bit of political theatre. In the long term, the risks for remain are simply too awful to contemplate.