Boris and May battle for sovereignty
Several journalists of a reasonably hard-baked kind said that Boris Johnson’s speech was the best he had ever given. It was a big, expansive performance with new jokes and also some new thoughts. The Mayor of London and MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip is seldom found talking about sovereignty. The remorseless logic with which his fellow Tory classicist, Enoch Powell, used to defend “the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament” is not Boris’s style. Yet that phrase is embedded in this speech, followed by the assertion that, “I know David Cameron can…restore trust in Parliament by making sure that new laws affecting the British public are made by people the British public can kick out at elections.”
So here is the preparatory work for Boris as the defender of the nation state. But Theresa May had also auditioned for that role in her speech, which included a Churchillian rejection of a common European immigration and asylum policy: “Not in a thousand years.” According to the Home Secretary, the refugee problem “can only be resolved by nation states taking responsibility themselves – and protecting their own national borders”.
An eye on UKIP
These two speeches suggest the Tories are determined to go for UKIP. Traditional Labour voters are extremely worried about immigration, and one reason why Ed Miliband lost the election is that he was useless at setting their minds at rest. Jeremy Corbyn will be even less inclined to see any need to do so, and even less credible if he tries. Much the easiest place for those voters to go is UKIP: to vote Conservative is a much bigger psychological wrench. So May and Boris are attempting in quite different tones to reassure them.
But could it be that British politics are actually about to become less adversarial and more consensual? This possibility occurred to me after hearing Guy Opperman, whose vast constituency of Hexham stretches from the Scottish border to Newcastle, talk with fluency and conviction about the Northern Powerhouse. If this project is to succeed, it will mean traditional rivals starting to co-operate across party and local divides. Sunderland and Newcastle will work together. The word “revolution” hardly seems too strong.