Before Boris Johnson delivered his conference speech, Rachel Sylvester suggested, in her column in The Times, that he
“is fortunate to be speaking on a video link rather than in person because he might have received a less rapturous reception than normal.”
It is true that the Prime Minister is, as often happens to holders of that office, less popular than he used to be. But the idea that he was lucky not to be performing in front of a live audience is preposterous.
His difficulties spring not only from the often inadequate response by the authorities to Covid-19, but from the impossibility, during the pandemic, of engaging with live audiences.
Johnson is one of the few speakers in any party who has taken the enormous trouble needed to master the art of the conference speech. For year after year on these occasions, he would for an hour or two steal his party leader’s thunder, by showing he knew better than David Cameron or Theresa May how to make Conservatives feel good about being Conservative.
This year, one cannot judge how his oratory went down in the hall. He spoke, however, in much the same manner as he would have employed if he had been in front of a live audience:
“I have read a lot of nonsense recently, about how my own bout of Covid has somehow robbed me of my mojo. And of course this is self-evident drivel, the kind of seditious propaganda that you would expect from people who don’t want this government to succeed, who wanted to stop us delivering Brexit and all our other manifesto pledges – and I can tell you that no power on earth was and is going to do that – and I could refute these critics of my athletic abilities in any way they want: arm-wrestle, leg-wrestle, Cumberland wrestle, sprint-off, you name it.”
This is designed not only to convince those ready to be convinced, but also to infuriate those ready to be infuriated.
“Drivel” and “seditious propaganda” are deliberately insulting ways to describe all those high-minded columns by Sylvester and other distinguished pundits who devote their intellects to the task of demonstrating that Johnson is a scoundrel.
That he has the effrontery to accuse them of “sedition”, as if he were a monarch, just confirms his unfitness for office, a truth which will shortly become so obvious and embarrassing that Conservative MPs will bundle him out of power.
One day this forecast will turn out to be true, but meanwhile this kind of commentary runs the risk of underestimating the Prime Minister’s chances of success. As Tom McTague observes in The Atlantic, again and again Johnson has been written off, and again and again he has survived and in due course prospered.
Nor does the failure to understand Johnson end there. Members of the commentariat ask what his ideology is, and point out, after making their investigations, that he does not have one.
This is true, but what they fail to see is that this is in many ways a strength. He has not strapped himself, or had himself strapped by others, into an ideological straitjacket.
He is a Tory pragmatist, interested in what works in practice, not what looks good on paper.
Pragmatism is an unexciting virtue, but Johnson has a gift for making dull stuff sound more attractive than it would from some other speaker:
“It was offshore wind that puffed the sails of Drake and Raleigh and Nelson, and propelled this country to commercial greatness.”
One has only to imagine, with a shudder, how dreary the green energy proposals would have sounded in the mouth of any other party leader.
Johnson confirmed with this speech that he stands in the tradition of Benjamin Disraeli. Here is Robin Harris, in The Conservatives: A History, explaining at the end of his two chapters on Disraeli what mattered most to that statesman:
“As Salisbury said in the Lords in tribute to his old chief – a man he increasingly grew to respect, though never to like: ‘Zeal for the greatness of England was the passion of his life.’ When the mythology is stripped away – the overwritten novels, the overwrought expressions, the mysterious allusions, all later wrapped up in the hugely successful and highly eccentric trappings of the Primrose League – that simple core remains. ‘The greatness of England’ (by which Disraeli meant Britain, but never thought it necessary to explain) is his decisive contribution to the idea which the Conservative Party has of itself, and which, down through the decades, it has wanted others to have of it.”
And here is Johnson at the end of his speech:
“That is the Britain we can build – in its way, and with all due respect to everywhere else, the greatest place on earth; indeed that is the country and the society we are in the process of building.
“And I know that it seems tough now, when we are tackling the indignities and cruelty and absurdity of the disease, but I believe it is a measure of the greatness of this country that we are simply not going to let it hold us back or slow us down, and we are certainly not going to let it get us down, not for a moment, because even in the darkest moments we can see the bright future ahead, and we can see how to build it, and we are going to build it together.”
Here, ignored by superior commentators, is the faith in the nation which Johnson believes can unite lifelong Conservatives with the traditional Labour supporters who voted Conservative for the first time last December.