The audience was half-hoping for a dazzling – even slightly dangerous – display of fireworks; but the master of ceremonies turned up with just a small packet of sparklers. Still, Boris Johnson’s speech to the 2017 Conservative party conference was sufficient to lift the mood in the main hall in Manchester. He might feel that even if it was not vintage Johnson, it got him through a potentially awkward occasion.
There were one or two laugh-lines, like his description of Jeremy Corbyn as a “superannuated space cadet”. Colleagues, including Philip Hammond, were singled out for affectionate praise, to prove that Johnson is a team player. Although he referred to attempts to shoot him in the back, this rather unoriginal joke was delivered without a hint of bitterness.
In fact, no one listening to Johnson’s speech without some background knowledge would have guessed that it had anything to do with a leadership bid. But that was an essential part of the plan. Far from launching a direct appeal for support in any forthcoming contest, Johnson was trying to speak as if he was leader already.
One by one he ticked off the tasks expected of a leader in this perilous time for his party. Ridicule the Labour leader: check. Sound like a seasoned statesperson: check. Remind the party that it has won the “battle of ideas” against socialism: done. Finally, plagiarise Winston Churchill: for Johnson, no problem. In fact, Johnson did more than just deliver a truncated version of a leader’s speech. He claimed to personify Britain itself, describing the country’s citizens as “genial” and “self-deprecating”. He didn’t need to add, “blonde-haired, not quite as tousled as usual”.
Will it work? After last year’s speech, this correspondent commented that Johnson had been unusually restrained, even perhaps a little bit dull. This seemed a promising strategy, not least because it suited a serving foreign secretary. The problem for Johnson is that, for all his undeniable talents, he is essentially a media creation. His addiction to headlines is incurable, and his attempt to satisfy his cravings through recent contributions to The Telegraph and The Sun will be remembered long after the (fairly muted) applause for this latest speech has died away.
The biggest threat to Johnson’s ambitions is that the long-running saga is itself in danger of becoming rather dull. It is difficult for observers of British politics to remember a time when “Boris” was not being touted by his favourite media outlets. His face is becoming over-familiar. Hence, no doubt, the curious notion that Jacob Rees-Mogg might be the party’s saviour, as the purveyor of a different (more innocent?) kind of eccentricity.
It was difficult to know what Johnson was trying to do when he delivered his Churchillian punchline about “letting the lion roar”. Was he saying it without much emphasis because he thought it was so brilliant that it needed no amplification? Or did he realise at the last moment that it wasn’t going to wash, even with his admirers in the hall? Maybe he was just frustrated by the necessity of making a relatively downbeat speech to reassure party members who think that his ingrained sense of disloyalty has peaked too early. Or, perhaps, he sensed that his recent antics have cost him his position as conference darling, and that his prolonged attempt to become King of the Jungle is in danger of ending not with a roar, but with a whimper.