Boris Johnson brought Merry England politics to the big stage. Not for him the ascent into the higher platitudes, the infliction on his followers of willed pieties.
The Prime Minister can hardly bear to let ten seconds go by without telling a joke. Within a few words he was saying that when the Government decided to reopen the theatres and night clubs,
“we knew that some people would still be anxious, so we sent top government representatives to our sweatiest boites de nuit to show that anyone could dance perfectly safely.”
The cameras found Michael Gove, looking pink with pleasure as the Prime Minister pointed in his direction and said “Let’s hear it for Jon Bon Govi”.
At party conferences in the olden days, Johnson made Conservatives feel good about being Conservative at the ConHome rally, and for an hour or two stole the party leader’s thunder by some outrageous though essentially minor departure from the party line.
Now Johnson is party leader, and no one has yet worked out how to steal his thunder. There have been very few moments at this conference when he was not in action, not supplying broadcast clips.
With his energy, emotion and comic brio, he has dominated the show, while remaining watchful for any rival who might start to build up an independent following.
Flashes of seriousness were needed during his speech in order to guard against the charge that he is an unworthy successor to the great figures who have led the party in the past. So he told the conference:
“Margaret Thatcher would not have ignored this meteorite that has just crashed through the public finances, she would have wagged her finger and said more borrowing now is just higher interest rates and even higher taxes later.“
And he insisted that “this reforming government” is going, “after decades of drift and dither”, to “get social care done”.
Entertainment is placed in the service of worthy aims. Johnson’s style distracts from his substance. He has a gift amounting to genius for making humdrum projects sound adventurous, enjoyable, even poetic.
Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written In a Country Churchyard was pressed into service to illustrate a point about the wasted potential – the flowers “born to blush unseen”, the “mute inglorious Miltons” – which will be liberated by levelling the country up.
And he gave us moments which were pure P.G.Wodehouse: “If you can steal a dog or cat there is frankly no limit to your depravity.”
At the end there was no milking of the applause; no lingering on stage with his wife, Carrie Johnson. Off they went at top speed, hand in hand but only giving the photographers a few moments to snap them.
This was, in its way, one of the most brilliant performances I can remember from a British politician. Nobody in modern times has used humour so effectively to raise his followers’ morale, assert his personal primacy and ridicule his rivals.
But what is left? What will be remembered? Not much, perhaps.
Our revels now are ended, and as I write these last words, the conference centre is being dismantled around me. The four-day Manchester show is over, and tomorrow the Prime Minister will be playing on some other stage.