The biggest-ever fringe event at a Conservative Party conference took place in the autumn of last year. The host was this website. The speaker was Boris Johnson. How it came about and what happened afterwards may be a tale worth telling.
The year before, Johnson had spoken from the conference platform as Foreign Secretary. Brexit was in trouble. Theresa May had lost her majority in the spring’s general election. Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill had departed. The days of May’s glad confident pre-election Lancaster House speech were long gone.
At any rate, Johnson “has out-trumpeted all others so far at this flat, bewildered and underwhelming conference”, we wrote of that 2017 conference speech. It “worked because at its heart it was making an argument. This was not merely that Brexit can be a stonking success, but that it is Conservative ideas that can make it so”.
Then came the Chequers summit and May’s plan the following summer. David Davis resigned in protest. Johnson didn’t want to go but, in the end, also quit the Cabinet. So there would be no 2018 Tory conference platform for him in the main hall. That being so, ConservativeHome decided to supply one on the fringe instead.
Readers will see that our view of Johnson had been changing. “Our attitude to Boris should exactly mirror his attitude to us: we should have our cake and eat it,” we had written two year earlier, mimicking one of his own phrases. Gradually, we had found ourselves wanting more of the Great British Cake that he was baking.
At our fringe meeting, Johnson delivered a bracing pro-Brexit phillipic to “my friends and fellow ConHomers”. Within a year, Theresa May was gone, and he was in the final of the ensuing leadership election with Jeremy Hunt. In other circumstances, the choice for us might have been hard. In those that existed, it was easy.
The Conservatives had plunged below the floor in the polls, and were hurtling towards the centre of the earth. In the spring’s Euro-elections, they had been reduced to a pathetic four seats. The reason was straightforward enough. May had pledged over a hundred times that Britain would leave the EU on March 29. It didn’t.
She then said that she was not prepared to delay Brexit later than the end of June, but did. She then declared that it would be “unacceptable” for European elections to take place, but they happened. She denounced Jeremy Corbyn as a threat to the country, but then sought to deliver the Withdrawal Agreement by making a deal with him.
The situation was desperate. The Party was losing its sense of self-belief – indeed, of self. It had no alternative but to throw the dice.
We believed that “if the Tories want the leader best placed to see off Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage, Johnson is the man,” and ended our endorsement by quoting The Dark Knight. “Perhaps Johnson is not the Prime Minister that the British people deserve…but he is the Prime Minister that we need right now”.
Conservative MPs and Party members duly threw those dice on “a wing and a prayer”, as we put it. Johnson won the election. And then everything began…to get even worse.
His enemies recognised that if Johnson could be stopped, Brexit could be too. That meant violating constitutional norms by taking the Commons’ timetable hostage. The new Prime Minister recognised this – and sought to head them off by means of a long prorogation.
The Supreme Court barred him from doing so through a judgement as constitutionally illiterate as it was legally plausible. Oliver Letwin duly hijacked the Commons’ proceedings with the aid of a biased Speaker. Johnson was forced by law to seek a extension that he didn’t want.
And he lost in the Commons again and again: to Letwin; on the Benn Bill (or Act, as it became); over calling a general election (twice); about a conference recess. Johnson’s majority vanished as Phillip Hammond and company claimed that the Prime Minister’s intention was to get a No Deal Brexit. We said he might have to resign.
Then something strange began to happen. After Johnson duly sent an extension letter as required, his and the Party’s poll ratings went not down…but up. Where May had been blamed for pursuing extensions, Johnson was forgiven. She had been a Remainer. He was a Leaver. Voters gave him the benefit of the doubt.
“Get Brexit done,” they told Conservative-run focus groups. Johnson began to repeat the slogan back at an voter-fearful Commons. Eventually, its nerve cracked: Labour, the SNP and – especially – the Liberal Democrats waved an election through.
As we write, the best part of six weeks on, the Tories last five poll ratings have been: 44, 43, 46, 43, 42 and 41 per cent. For all that, Johnson may not return to Downing Street after Thursday. A Black, sorry, Red Swan may swoop on him as he approaches the winning-post.
Differential turnout, tactical voting, late swing, “wrong” polls: a combination of some or all of these may do for him. If so, he will be told that he got it all wrong. For as a lower league manager put it in the different context of Saturday’s football highlights, “we all have a degree in hindsight”. In such circumstances, most will be quick to brandish it.
We hope to reverse the usual order of things: in other words, to kick up and kiss down. Having put the boot into Johnson many times – recently, we complained of once having “been driven nuts by his evasiveness about content, selfishness, amorality and unwillingness to file on time” – we will strive not to do on Friday, whatever happens.
For his campaigning achievement has been nothing less than amazing: to pick the Tories off the floor of 20 per cent or so, and drag them by the scruff of their neck up to 40 per cent or more, in less than six months, is an astounding turnaround. What other politician could have come remotely close to doing the same?
So much for the Party. What about the country, you ask? What indeed. Give Johnson his majority, and we will be out of the EU by February – finally delivering on the referendum mandate. Give him enough Tory MPs, and we can wave goodbye to Jeremy Corbyn’s institutional anti-semitism, two referendums, extremism and tax grabs.
He may even be able, God willing, to make his One Nation Boosterism sing. In the Sword in the Stone, T.H White tells the story of how Wart, a.k.a. King Arthur, is unable to free the sword at first attempt. As he heaves and sweats, his childhood tutors, companions, and friends become mysteriously present.
For the next four days, Johnson is the Wart, the Once and Future King, of this electoral struggle. “Put your back into it,” says one friend to Wart. “What about those forearms?” asks another. “Keep a steady effort,” says a third, “and you will have it yet.” “Come along,” says the last, “for all we humble friends of yours are here waiting to cheer.”