He did better than last time. On Thursday 30th June 2016, Boris Johnson shocked and dismayed his supporters, gathered in the Caxton Suite at St Ermin’s Hotel, by announcing that the next Conservative leader, and Prime Minister, “cannot be me”.
Many of the same people gathered today in a large room at the Academy of Engineering in Carlton House Terrace. They are no longer shocked and dismayed, for they can sense that their man is coming into his own.
Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, came to the podium first, to a storm of applause. The assumption was that the candidate had arrived.
“I’m just the warm-up act,” Cox said. But he is the best warm-up act in the business, as he demonstrated when he warmed up for Theresa May at the party conference, and it was encouraging for Johnson that he had managed to sign him up.
Cox spoke of the need for unity (applause), the unstinting support he will give to whoever wins, and “certain indispensable requirements” for doing the job well.
When he declared that “a managerial and bureaucratic approach to politics will not suffice”, he received warm applause. This sense, extending far beyond Westminster, that managerialism is not enough is one reason why Johnson is doing so well.
And then Cox said Johnson “will put together a brilliant team”. “Hear hear,” said an intellligent and dynamic MP who was sitting just in front of me.
There were a lot of MPs in the audience, many of whom could only find space at the back of the room. One of the things which most distressed them about Theresa May’s leadership was the feeling that she had absolutely no interest in using their talents.
On came Johnson. “Can you hear me?” he said. We could.
“Stop Brexit,” shouted a protester outside in the street. We could hear him too, but only faintly once someone shut the window.
“After three years and two missed deadlines we must leave the EU on 31st October,” Johnson said.
One could not help reflecting that he is a specialist in missed deadlines. His copy virtually never arrived at The Daily Telegraph in time for him to meet his deadline. He knew the supposed deadline was not the real deadline.
More than most people, Johnson likes doing things his own way. Today he did things his own way. He had not allowed his team to impose on him a total abstinence from jokes, to show how serious he has become.
He played a few of his greatest hits from his time as Mayor of London. Knife crime came down thanks to stop and search, and “there was a long period when I was just about the only person willing to stand up for financial services”.
Jeremy Corbyn, he warned, is “far to the left of Ken Livingstone”, and has “failed again and again to extirpate anti-semitism from his circle”. That got loud applause.
But he ended on a sober note, emphasising that he stands for “sensible moderate modern conservatism”, with a prosperous free-market economy paying for first-class public services.
He said he would take six questions from the press. The BBC, Sky News, ITV, The Daily Mail, The Financial Times and The Guardian were the favoured organisations.
Beth Rigby of Sky News asked him about his character. “My parrot?” Johnson said, pretending to have misheard.
She quoted a tasteless phrase he had used about a suicide vest. This attempt to embarrass him produced growls of anger from the back of the room, and cries of “sit down”.
The anger was unnecessary (Johnson can defend himself) and unfair (Rigby is not there to ask easy questions), but almost certainly reflects a wider annoyance in the country.
“I”m delighted that some of my colleagues seem to dissent,” Johnson said. He remarked that “occasionally some plaster comes off the ceiling”: a sort of admission that some of his remarks miscarry.
“Of course I’m sorry for the offence that I have caused,” he added.
But he did not apologise for speaking his mind. On the contrary, he said the public “feels alienated” from the political class because “we are muffling and veiling our language, not speaking as we find, covering up everything in bureaucratic platitudes”.
When asked whether he has taken drugs, he avoided the question – “the canonical account has circulated many times” (there is, of course, no canonical account) – and instead extolled the merits of free-market capitalism.
This was a version of the David Cameron defence – that a candidate is entitled to a private life before entering politics – but without spelling the doctrine out, and certainly without mentioning Cameron, who used it to good effect during the 2005 leadership contest.
Heather Stewart of The Guardian asked whether Johnson will resign if he fails to meet the 31st October deadline.
He replied that if the deadline is missed, “we will face mortal retribution from the electorate”. “Hear hear,” said another, quieter MP sitting next to me.
“I’m not going to pretend everything will be plain sailing,” Johnson said. “There will be difficulties and there may be bumps in the road.”
He threw in the observation that while we have belonged to the EU, “teaching of French and German in our schools has actually declined”. We can, he implied, become culturally more European if we are prepared to work hard instead of just striking easy poses.
That was the last question. There were indignant cries from the press: they wanted more. They had already, one might say, been given quite a bit.
Johnson thinks he knows how to handle the feral beast that is the British press. He does, in the sense that he understands how to feed it with excellent copy.
But although this was a tremendously successful launch, which confirmed him as the candidate with the momentum needed to carry him into Downing Street, the feral beast’s appetite is unbounded, and one cannot help suspecting it will one day find some way to rend him limb from limb.