Boris Johnson has waited for most of his life, since he dreamed as a tiny boy of being “World King”, of doing what for him may be the next best thing: addressing a Conservative Conference as Party Leader and Prime Minister. After all, there is little he likes more than delivering a speech – especially to an adoring fanbase rather than a hostile throng, which is a fair way of describing much of the House of Commons (with not all of it on the Opposition benches). Today, that shimmering vision became real. But not in the circumstances he would have chosen.
The young Johnson would have imagined a landslide majority. Instead, he currently leads a government in minority by 43. He might have hoped to bask through halcyon times as a kind of naughty-uncle-of-the-nation. But he governs during the greatest national crisis since the Second World War. As we saw during the aftermath of the London riots, when he looked ill at ease, he loves to be loves by a crowd. Instead, this liberal by temperament, background and formation finds himself reviled by much of the country as a British Trump.
He could have responded today by bashing up the Commons from beginning to end, doubling down on his denunication of the “Surrender Bill”, and appealing to Leave masses above a Remainer Ascendancy – in short, by unleashing his Inner Cummings.
Instead, we got not the bludgeon, nor even the sabre, but a tickling stick. This was the Old Johnson: warm, self-mocking, slightly extempore, with some terrific jokes, and engaging not so much with minds as hearts – or maybe funny bones. Opponents are not so much driven from as laughed out of court. John Bercow was made to chew a kangaroo’s testicle. The House of Commons became a malfunctioning computer – the “pizza wheel of doom” that signals endless delay. Jeremy Corbyn was blasted off into space.
Nonetheless, there was a difference between old times and now – and, no, it was not a tidier haircut, or even a better script. “Can Boris Johnson stay on message for a full four days?… Just about,” Theresa May told a Conservative Conference in her first speech to it, only three years ago. But her successor was remorsely, relentlessly on message today. The “Surrender Bill” was only referenced once. But “Get Brexit Done” was repeated again and again and again. As we write, others will be counting how many times.
The Prime Minister’s message was that he wants it done for a purpose – so that he can go on to win an election, gain a majority, and govern broadly in the One Nation tradition. His is a blurry variant of that familiar picture. He lavished praise on the NHS, but also directly lauded capitalism: when was the last time you heard a Tory leader do that? He got tough on sentencing, which is very much New Johnson (though he would point to his record as London Mayor) but stayed big on grand infrastructure and whizzo tech, which is altogether Old Boris.
But the key to the speech, as so often, was less content than tone. It was policy-lite: nothing much by way of new spending announcements, that usual arrow in a Prime Minister’s quiver. It was Brexit-lite, too: there was only a glancing reference to the new Brexit plan that he is pushing. There will be more of that tomorrow. Politicians now feel obliged to do the personal stuff, and this isn’t easy for Johnson, since beneath his extrovert shell lurks a secretive interior.
When it came, it took a surprising turn. With his father in the audience; a brother who has spectacularly parted from him politically, and a sister who cheerfully slags his Brexit policy off at every turn, the Prime Minister turned to the most silent member of his immediate family: his mother, an artist who was diagnose with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 40, and whose experiences of depression and breakdown have been well chronicled, some of them taking place during Johnson’s youth and teens.
“For keen students of the divisions in my family you might know that I have kept the ace up my sleeve – my mother voted Leave,” he said, before moving on. “[She] taught me to believe strongly in the equal importance, the equal dignity, the equal worth of every human being on the planet.”
If there weren’t something in this, Johnson would surely not have his mysterious rapport with so many voters – the feeling of his coming alive that one gets when he comes into contact with a crowd. It is perhaps especially strong with all sorts of people who don’t usually vote Conservative, and without it he would never have stood an earthly of being elected Mayor of London. But the core of his take on life seems to us to be even more simple. He spoke of a Britain “where you can live your life and love whoever you choose”: this is his liberal “irreducible core”
There is a sense with all Johnson speeches that he is somehow parodying a politician making one – that the whole thing is done tongue-in-cheek. Don’t knock it. Most voters won’t have seen his address. They won’t even clock the highlights. Nonetheless. they get the point – or at least a point. Politicians, they believe, are crooks and shysters. But at least Johnson makes you laugh. One might as well give him a go. Fuzzy, vague and maddeningly short on detail it may have been, but this speech, as so often, showcased his oddball appeal.