Boris Johnson often used to steal the show from David Cameron. Now he is the show, running to packed houses in Manchester and London.
He knows how to enchant Conservatives by pushing the elastic boundaries of taste further than they have been pushed before, while remaining so light in tone that anyone who condemns him sounds prudish, prissy, heavy-handed.
His most audacious line came early on, in a flight of fancy about parliament being a reality TV show:
“the whole lot of us would have been voted out of the jungle by now, but at least we could have had the consolation of watching the Speaker being forced to eat a kangaroo testicle.”
That provoked incredulous joy. A colleague asked whether any Prime Minister has ever used the word “testicle” in a party conference speech.
It happens to be a question I have never looked into, or indeed thought of asking, but I replied with confidence that no Prime Minister ever has.
And yet Johnson, though unusual, is not unprecedented. He is a Tory adventurer, whose wit, impertinence, ruthlessness, disreputable habits and brilliant use of language recall Benjamin Disraeli.
“Success in the child of Audacity.” So wrote Disraeli in one of his novels, The Rise of Iskander.
Anyone who wants glimpses of what Johnson is like should buy The Sayings of Disraeli, a slim volume, only 63 pages, edited by Robert Blake and now republished with a new foreword by Alistair Lexden.
There are differences of course. When Disraeli delivered his great performance to an audience of 6,000 people in the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in 1872, his speech lasted three hours and 20 minutes, and he fortified himself by drinking two bottles of white brandy.
Johnson’s performance was shorter, the audience smaller, and so far as one could see, he had no recourse to alcoholic stimulants.
Nor has he yet achieved a triumph to match the passing in 1867 by Disraeli of the Second Reform Bill, a triumph attained “by brilliant manoeuvres which won him the temporary support of first one opposition group, and then another”, as Lexden puts it.
Will Brexit be Johnson’s triumph or disaster? Nobody knows, though many claim to know, but therein lies the drama of the performance.
The Prime Minister treads a dangerous path, in the full glare of publicity, and no one can see the way by which he can reach his goal.
But is he downhearted? There is no sign of that. He tells his jokes and heartens his troops as if he had not a care in the world.
He got them to applaud the line “We are European.” He said “We love Europe”, and through the applause, which he was perhaps not certain of getting, he added “I love Europe anyhow”.
Here is yet another rebuke to those Remainers who maintain that the only way to love Europe is to stay in the European Union. The Conservatives will
“answer the cry of those 17.4 million who voted for Brexit…address that feeling in so many parts of the country that they were being left behind, ignored…that their towns were not only suffering from a lack of love and investment but that their views had become somehow unfashionable or unmentionable.”
Like Disraeli before him, Johnson wants to seize the opportunity of forming an alliance with the deeply patriotic, newly enfranchised working class, lent new voting power by Disraeli’s Reform Bill and now by David Cameron’s referendum.
Tory Democracy means taking these disregarded people seriously and showing that it is the Tories which will improve the sometimes scandalous conditions in which they live, while also leading a great nation of which they can be proud.
Johnson is not a religious man, but today he preached religion:
“The NHS is holy to the people of this country because of the simple beauty of its principle that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, but when you are sick the whole country figuratively gathers at your bedside and does everything it can to make you well again.”
He mounted a direct attack on Labour’s claim to be the true believers in the NHS, on that party’s “deranged and ruinous plans borrowed from the playbook of Bolivarian revolutionary Venezuela”, and on its leader, whom Johnson in his playful but ruthless way suggested should be sent into space as Britain’s first “communist cosmonaut”.
When Theresa May spoke in Manchester in October 2017, she looked as if she was going to die on stage.
Johnson used his speech to demonstrate his abounding vitality. He said almost nothing about how he proposes to get Brexit done, but sought to strengthen the fear among his opponents that he might be mad enough (as they would characterise it) to leave with no deal, and can carry his party and millions of members of the wider public with him as he does so.
The nerve was faultless. Whether the judgment is on that level awaits the verdict of events. It is not yet clear whether Johnson is Disraeli or that other Tory adventurer, Lord Randolph Churchill.