There are few politicians who are greeted with the adulation of a rock-star and who relish being the centre of attention. Boris Johnson is one such political beast. Time after time, he would rock up at party conferences to be greeted by the inevitable scrum of journalists which, much to their annoyance, would overshadow the keynote addresses of successive Conservative leaders.
For a boy who aspired to be “World King” and who plotted most of his adult-life to become Prime Minister, Johnson must have approached this year’s conference season with some trepidation. Hot on the heels of the Supreme Court ruling that found he acted unlawfully in advising Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament, as well as renewed media scrutiny of his personal life, this was no ordinary leader’s speech. It was to be a key test of his ability to reassert his fledgling authority and reset the political agenda.
In many respects, his speech to the overflowing conference hall was vintage Boris. It was full of his customary rhetorical flourishes and his masterful command of language, not to mention his inalienable ability to enthuse and enthral his audience. In a typically barnstorming address, it was also laden with humour, self-deprecation and clever jokes, including one cruelly at the expense of the Speaker and a certain “Kangaroo’s testicle”.
Incredibly, this was a Conference speech that almost didn’t happen, with many MPs still carrying about their business in Westminster having declined Conservative Party pleas to grant a short Conference recess. Mercifully, from the point of view of businesses, proceedings weren’t unduly impacted by the regular shuttling of Ministers back and forth between Manchester and London, although it was telling that this felt less like the usual corporate-shindig of yesteryear. The halls and fringes were brimming with members, with many businesses no doubt taking flight at what they perceived would be nothing more than a pre-election rally.
On Brexit, the members lapped up every utterance. Of course, this was home-turf for a Prime Minister delivering a speech to a largely loyal, and overwhelmingly Eurosceptic, rank-and-file. Having tolerated the premierships of his immediate predecessors, there was a palpable sense amongst the grassroots membership that they finally had “one of their own” at the helm. Nevertheless, Johnson and his aides will have been buoyed by the warmth of the reaction in both the hall and the Conference fringe, as the Prime Minister was mobbed wherever he set foot by adoring fans.
Crucially, this was also an opportunity to appeal over the heads of the assembled delegates and to the rest of the country, particularly those crucial swing voters in swathes of marginal constituencies who consume their politics from the soundbites of the 10 o’clock news bulletins. It explains why his tone and language was noticeably softer than the cries of “Surrender” and “Betrayal” which we have become accustomed to in recent weeks. The tone was reminiscent of his leadership campaign speeches – progressive, compassionate and moderate – with Johnson at pains to emphasise classic ‘One Nation’ themes such as investing in the NHS, improving schools, and delivering more bobbies on the beat.
Curiously, there were no new policy announcements, a sure sign that the Government is holding its powder dry until the Queen’s Speech and the now almost inevitable general election campaign. His performance, however, was a reminder to his detractors of his political abilities as a communicator. It was virtually unrecognisable from Theresa May’s car-crash performance at the very same dispatch box two years ago, and a stark reminder that the Conservatives will have a formidable salesman on the electoral stump this time around.
There had been much speculation that Boris wasn’t much enjoying life in Number 10. However, despite a less than stellar fortnight, and the various reports of factional splits between the Vote Leave brigade and his former City Hall lieutenants, the Conservative family left Manchester with their tails up. Whilst Boris did enough to convince those wavering Conservatives who had begun to doubt their wisdom in backing his candidacy, will it change anything beyond Manchester?
Based on this week’s evidence, BoJo has certainly got his MoJo back, but bigger battles lie ahead. The Brexit fundamentals of realpolitik remain fundamentally unchanged. The Prime Minister returns to Westminster hamstrung by a lack of a Parliamentary majority and an Opposition determined to keep him over the proverbial barrel. With a less than lukewarm reaction from the EU27 to his latest Brexit blueprint, the Prime Minister will do well over the next month to honour his promise that the UK will “get Brexit done” by 31 October, “do or die”. Failure to honour this key campaign pledge may yet have fatal political consequences for both his leadership and that of his own Party.
Tomos Davies, former Conservative Special Adviser
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January 21, 2021