It started with a question: "Where in the world," asked political commentator Tim Montgomerie, "is belief in capitalism and its capacity for future wealth creation highest?"
The crowd shuffled.
"Great Britain? The United States? No. It's the Socialist Republic of Vietnam!"
Europe and America have become "pessimistic places," Montgomerie bemoaned. Their bookshops are filled with "tomes attacking capitalism." Their films portray businesspeople as "rapacious wolves." And so "you have to go to the developing world, and often to former Communist countries, to find the greatest confidence" in the ineluctable truths of trickle down economics.
"It is time, my friends, for capitalism to fight back… [Economics] is not the dismal science; it's a moral mission!"
And so began a rowdy evening devoted to the unabashed defense of capitalism as a force for moral rectitude — and to its many minions: its much-maligned wealth creators, profit-minded plutocrats, and archetypal dog-eat-dog businessmen.
On Monday, around several dozen well-heeled Londoners gathered at the Legatum Institute, an international think tank and educational foundation, for the launch of its "Vision of Capitalism" project, which aims to "convene leaders of the Anglosphere" for a pre-election discussion on how Britain might "revitalize capitalism — and restore faith in the system." The event was sponsored by the British Private Equity & Venture Capital Association.
The Institute's keynote speaker was London mayor and parliamentary candidate Boris Johnson — who used the occasion, just weeks before Britain's May 9 general election, to position himself as an old school "One Nation Conservative," touting an especially unapologetic brand of profit-maximizing Toryism.
As it stands, Johnson — the floppy-haired, Eton and Oxford-educated classicist — appears to be the people's unlikely preference as the next Tory occupant of 10 Downing Street. All but certain to enter parliament with what is regarded as a safe seat for the party, he is "the clear favorite to replace David Cameron as prime minister and Conservative leader" in the next term, according to a YouGov poll published last week after the latter's surprise admission that it would be his last in the job.
The impending election lent Johnson's lecture — ostensibly, about grand moral visions — an air of urgency: dampened only by the fact that the man himself showed up late.
Around 7pm, a gaggle of attendees waited in a tastefully furnished reception room near London's Green Park — washing down bowls of olives with glasses of wine and sparkling water. Where was Boris? There were whispers that he was biking over from City Hall — on his own, in the rain.
But soon he arrived. And sooner still, the loquacious mayor was taking swipes at Labor Party Leader Ed Miliband.
It's not that Miliband doesn't sympathize with the working man, Johnson told the crowd. Only, "he does not see that wealth creation and capitalism actually has a moral purpose" that is integral to that working man's welfare.
If elected, Johnson continued, Miliband would surely "take his country backwards: backwards to the 1970s that I spoke of — with an orgy of higher taxation and regulation. I remember the 1970s and I wouldn't want to go back there: to that nasty, grim, petty epoch of really foul racism and union-dominated economics. Why would you?"
A discussion of Britain's 1970s regulatory framework was followed by a consideration of 1970s food: "I remember what food was like in the 1970s and it was terrible! You could go to restaurants in London… You would seriously be offered, as a starter, half a grapefruit in a steel bowl. We have come a long, long way."
Which led to a discourse on fire safety: "One of the reasons we have seen such a dramatic drop in deaths by fire… That's because Londoners are no longer accidentally and drunkenly carbonising themselves in late-night chip pan fires. Because the range of late night food is so fantastic and so wonderful."
Which all went to say that the forces of capitalism, in Johnson's view, have allowed Britain to improve its once-woeful culinary lot.
The mayor's short lecture amounted to an audit of capitalism's accomplishments in Britain: better labor conditions, more advanced health care, less crime, higher life expectancy, smoother roads and better air quality — "which the BBC moans about."
But the speech focused especially on capitalism as a vehicle for combating inequality. "It is capitalism that is today ensuring our society is fairer, juster, more happy and — wait for it — more equal. More equal!"
The speech was an appeal to One Nation Conservatism: a brand of Tory politics with roots in the social reforms of the mid-1800s. One Nation Conservatism historically holds that class systems, rooted in great wealth disparity, are organic and necessary — but that the rich have a societal duty to improve the conditions of the poor.
Critics of One Nation Conservatism decry it as paternalism — dressed up as a cheap appeal to the working classes.
Margaret Thatcher's reign in the late 70s and 80s saw the Conservative Party shift from a One Nation approach to a New Right program, with a more American-style grouping of free market libertarianism, social conservatism and distaste for the welfare state.
But in recent years, Tories have been seen to embrace a softer conservatism, which downplays the need for wealth inequality.
On Monday, Boris — who looks likely to win a seat in May's election, and then become a frontrunner to take over the Conservative Party from David Cameron — made clear that capitalism has nothing to apologize for.
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The message may yet resonate. In a survey published by ComRes in January, Johnson was found to be the most popular politician in the country.
In a March YouGov poll, 67 percent of respondents judged Johnson to be "likeable" — compared to just 24 percent for his likely rival, Home Secretary Theresa May, who is sometimes referred to as "Britain's Angela Merkel."
Unusual for this election season, Johnson is said to appeal across party lines. He has a near 50 percent approval rating from supporters of the Eurosceptic and anti-immigration UK Independence Party. Recently, a former Tory minister likened Boris to Heineken beer: a man who "reaches the voters other politicians don't."
It's a surprising position for an upper-crust Oxford grad to hold. And Johnson's detractors are quick to charge that the verbose mayor is simply the same old Tory — dressed up as a bumbling and eccentric iconoclast.
His biographer Sonia Purnell has spoken of Johnson's "ideological emptiness." The columnist David Hill, writing in the New Statesman, has acknowledged Boris's crowd-pleasing effect — "He makes hardcore Conservatism feel like marvellous mischief and endless fun" — but argued that Johnson shares the "small town certainties and colossal moral snobbery" of Margaret Thatcher.
Johnson's efforts to portray himself as a globally minded politician — capable of ruling beyond London — have picked up pace in recent months. In January, the mayor went on a surprise trip to the Kurdistan region of Iraq, where he was photographed in a suit and purple tie: lying belly-down on a pile of dirt, alongside a Peshmerga fighter, brandishing an AK-47.
Commentators interpreted the move as an attempt to suggest that Johnson is on the frontline of Britain's fight against the Islamic State.
Reporting in the Telegraph, Johnson described the British Army's training of Peshmerga fighters as "looking a bit like a shooting party in northern Spain."
Johnson's efforts to position himself as a man with broad leadership credentials have also reached back in time. Last year, the mayor published a hagiographic biography of Winston Churchill — in which he recounted his boyhood, listening to apocryphal tales of Churchill's daring.
In a book review in The Guardian, Ian Jack speculated that Johnson "wanted others to begin thinking of him as Churchillian. As an equally flawed figure and similarly a loose cannon, but also just as vivid, amusing and adventurous a man who, when the time comes (as it must) will step up and surprise the country with his unexpected sincerity and resolve."
Follow Katie Engelhart on Twitter: @katieengelhart