I’ve always enjoyed the way an expectant crowd develops its own hive-personality, with the hubbub ebbing and flowing spontaneously based on a group guesstimate of whether proceedings are about to start. The assembled Conservative MPs and activists in a (mercifully air-conditioned) hall at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre were so looking forward to today’s result being announced that they had a few false starts. Every so often, the room would suddenly hush from tones of excited gossip to pin-drop silence, only to resume once it became clear that actually it was just a backbencher sneaking in later, not the main event kicking off.
Eventually, the lights dimmed – a quiet fireworks-night “ooh” emanated from the crowd, as inevitably as the person who always shouts “wahey!” when an unfortunate drops their pint in a pub. A touch of decorum was restored by a rather slick video intro, parading audio clips of past Conservative Prime Ministers.
Churchill – “I was brought up in my father’s house to believe in democracy. ‘Trust the people’…”.
Macmillan – “Britain has been great, is great, and will stay great, provided we…get on with the job”.
(Are you getting the message yet?)
Ted Heath – no, there was no Heath, presumably because the risk of booing would be too great.
Thatcher made the cut, of course – “I have only one thing to say: you turn if you want to…”
John Major was perhaps a little chancey, given his recent interventions, but he got through safe and sound with “These years changed the face of our nation, and they changed the fate of our nation.”
Cameron was there, too – “We campaigned for hope, not fear; we campaigned for change, not more of the same…” My, didn’t he get it.
Finally, CCHQ’s video editors did Theresa May the courtesy of inclusion: “Together, let’s build a better Britain.” But perhaps that was more a caution to the next leader – look upon their works, ye mighty, et cetera.
Then it was over to Brandon Lewis, who was surely aware that his somewhat harsh reward for overseeing a pretty successful leadership contest will probably be to lose the role of Party Chairman. He had evidently decided to stay positive, and hailed “a contest that has shown the very best of our Party” – perhaps a slightly over-optimistic summary, but nobody was churlish enough to say so.
If Lewis was the hype-man, it fell to Cheryl Gillan and Charles Walker to perform the main announcement, and to attempt the impossible task of making it seem like nobody could guess what was about to happen. Given that everybody knew the result already, it was a little like watching the announcement of who had won the Brit Award for Best British Male Brit from a shortlist of Stormzy and Norman Baker. It was never going to be the most tense moment of 2019.
Nonetheless, they made a good go of it. We got some preamble on being nicer to the new Prime Minister than to the old one, some barbs about the newfound gender equality at the top of the ’22 (there’s a 1922 Committee election coming up, and most MPs were in the audience, which I’m sure wasn’t on anybody’s mind), and a bit of Gillan banter, with Walker hailed as “my beautiful assistant”. She would do a better job of delivering an actual Brit Award than Gemma Collins, if anyone’s reading who has responsibility for booking that event.
But then there it was, slipped out of Walker’s inside pocket: the envelope, containing the big news that everybody knew but which everybody had nonetheless come along to hear the confirmation that they did indeed know it. And indeed the result was exactly as expected – a known-known, as Rumsfeld might put it.
From there, the process felt inevitable. A standing ovation greeted Boris Johnson, who allowed himself only a short turn about his DUDE (Deliver, Unite, Defeat, Energise) strategy.
Along the way, he somehow managed to mash together Geoffrey Cox’s favourite Milton quote (“Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant Nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep…”) with Gulliver waking up in Lilliput: “Like some slumbering giant, we are going to rise and ping off the guy-ropes of self-doubt and negativity…” But even that was only a short meander into anything as risky as imagery.
The speech was brief, it featured a line or two for the bulletins and the headlines, but overall it was spare and tight – certainly compared to his capacity for more free-style, off-script performances.
A short speech is not a bad thing, particularly when “the campaign is over, and the work begins”, but it might have surprised his audience somewhat. If they expected their eager anticipation to be sated with lengthy and elaborate oratory, they were mistaken.
That confounding of expectations is a theme Johnson has riffed on profitably in the past. In this case, the absence of much of a show might be the first outing of Johnson’s early message: that while his critics hope to paint him as a mere performer, he intends to focus on getting the job done. And if he left his fans wanting more, well, that’s unlikely to seem like a bad thing when the main event is just about to start.