Don't Believe the Headlines About Boris's Big Speech
The big speech being touted as a leadership challenge told us nothing new.
Photo: Andrew McCaren / Alamy Stock Photo
Well, was that it? Boris Johnson's Conservative Party conference fringe speech was one of the most hyped pieces of political rhetoric in who knows how long. Happening the day before the Prime Minister's speech, the entire conference has been trailed as "May vs Bojo". This speech was touted as a leadership challenge following Johnson being photographed in fields of wheat, seeming to mock May's cringeworthy "naughtiest" moment.
The Johnson acolytes queued for hours. Latecomers almost stampeded when security allowed them to progress closer to the hall. Journalists were herded into their own queue by conference centre staff. This contrasts with the main conference hall, where cabinet ministers have been speaking to rows of empty seats.
It would probably be a mistake to read all that much into the Boris-mania. With a capacity crowd of over 1,000, the overcrowding says as much about the size of the Birmingham ICC as anything else (particularly when you consider Labour's giant Liverpool conference centre). But in the optics-obsessed world of politics, it certainly creates a vibe.
Nevertheless, the speech was: meh.
Boris started by warning the Tories not to challenge Labour by becoming Corbyn-lite, before getting stuck into the seemingly obligatory Labour-baiting, saying, "We cannot, must not and will not let this weaselly cabal of superannuated Marxists and Hugo Chavez-admiring anti-semitism-condoning Kremlin apologists anywhere near the government of this country."
He then continued with a boilerplate Tory argument for capitalism tangentially relevant to political realities in Britain. "We Conservatives know that it is only a strong private sector economy that can pay for superb public services," he said, as local government faces up to 77 percent less funding compared to 2015/16 thanks to Tory austerity. "And that is the central symmetry of our one nation Toryism."
He called for lower taxes, even though Theresa May already pledged to make Britain a tax haven, with the lowest corporation tax in the G20. He called for a return to police stop-and-search, challenging one of Theresa May's few progressive policies.
He slammed the "outrage" of Theresa May's Chequers proposal on Brexit, saying that "instead of reasserting our ability to make our own laws, the UK will be effectively paraded in manacles down the Rue de la Loi like Caractacus" – unable to resist a classical reference. He urged the Prime Minister to return to her Lancaster House Brexit vision, which is the general Brexiteer line at conference. And he asked people to back the PM by not backing her current proposals: "I urge our friends in government to deliver what the people voted for, to back Theresa May in the best way possible, by softly, quietly and sensibly backing her original plan."
Ultimately, he was playing to the faithful but not offering anything particularly serious, as the absence of any solutions on the Irish border question made clear. Nor was it the content of speech anything that hasn't been said at this conference by other Brexiteers again and again.
He was never going to stand there and say, "This is a bid for leadership," but there seemed to be a distinct lack of a bombshell. Perhaps that's a mercy: the event was hosted by ConservativeHome, the grassroots Tory website that was flooded with racist comments following Johnson's comments that people who wear the burqa look like letterboxes.
The atmosphere afterwards was muted. People were happy that he hit the right notes on Brexit, but he doesn't seem to have administered the defibrillator shock this zombified party needs.
"I haven't decided what I think about it yet," one attendee told me.
"Well, I mean… yeah… good speech," said another, unconvincingly.
Ultimately, the speech didn't move the story on from his Telegraph article last week, in which he laid into Chequers at length.
"Disappointing," one woman said, before deciding she didn't want to be interviewed after all. "Nothing new," agreed her friend.
Nevertheless, it was enough to fill the news with talk of Johnson issuing a challenge to the authority of May and keeping the idea of a face-off rolling dutifully along. That's despite the fact he still doesn't have enough support in the party to challenge May, or the country to challenge Corbyn.
All we've really learned is that Boris Johnson is able to conjure coverage out of thin air and news out of nothing – including this article you're reading. That is, again, something we already knew.