Packed with sex, slapstick and supercharged Brexit optimism, Boris Johnson’s speech certainly hit the conference G-spot. He won the biggest cheers of the Manchester gathering so far after reassuring activists he was utterly loyal to the PM, while making a better job than she does in attacking Labour and boosting Tory morale.
The usual Johnsonian phrasing was deployed. Remoaners were full of “gloom and dubitation [doubt]”, wishing “a plague of boils or a murrain [fever] on our cattle”. He talked of “the syncretic [a religious fusion] genius of our country” and the “gigantic cyclotron of talent” in the UK. Terrorists Boko Haram were “numbskulls”.
And Boris spotted enemies within and without, picking them off one by one. The Brexit-doubting Economist was “glossy-covered, elegantly written, suspiciously unread”. The FT “make Eeyore look positively exuberant”, a Winnie-the-Pooh reference that doubles up as the Brexiteers’ nickname for Philip Hammond. Tiggerish Boris had Jeremy Corbyn most in his sights, however, and his call to send “the superannuated space cadet from Islington” into orbit will surely play on the crucial evening news clips.
Johnson once held a brick up as a prop on a previous conference stage, but today his main prop was Corbyn’s “voletrousered” effigy, a revolutionary Guy Fawkes to chuck on the bonfire. Perhaps taking David Cameron’s advice to Corbyn to ‘‘put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem’, the Foreign Secretary did just that (his hair cut neatly for once, his tie straight) as he wrapped himself tightly in the Union Flag of Brexit.
Sex was always a carefully placed innuendo away. He talked of the ‘honey traps’ that British troops faced from Russian spies in Estonia. He referred to the ‘economic masochism’ of ‘lefty’ Labour and the ‘bondage’ of debt it entailed. Yet in one particularly lyrical section, he argued that without ‘pain’ ‘there can be no pleasure’. That may be how he sees Brexit itself, and critics believe Leavers have put jobs and growth second to a national sense of ‘liberation’. His ministerial enemies believe that despite his “rhetorical flourishes” (copyright P Hammond), Johnson’s final signing up to May’s transition plan underlines his impotence on Brexit, not his prowess.
Boris-sceptics may also see his upbeat vision of the world as a Panglossian fantasy. Johnson’s optimism included claims that we will ‘find a cure’ for Islamist extremism and that we will ‘crack’ global warming through ‘British’ tech and green finance. It felt like a classic Daily Telegraph article, long on flourish and short on detailed policy. But if Brexit itself was a column that went wrong, this was him saying it would be all right on the night of March 31, 2019.
Earlier today, TV adventurer and ex-SAS guy Bear Grylls was on the conference platform, giving an impassioned warning to the Tories that “if you ignore young people, you perish”. The star of Celebrity Island (which sees big names dumped on a remote isle and told to survive) was an apt warm-up for Johnson, whose recent manoeuvrings help fuel the impression that the current Cabinet is a ‘Tory Island’ reality show.
Nothing this week has yet dispelled the idea that the PM’s own survival is under threat from fellow contestants who double up as jungle big beasts. May wasn’t in the conference hall today, worried that her reaction would be grabbed by a thousand cameras (tellingly, Michael Gove was the only Cabinet minister in the hall). His final flourish went down a storm among the faithful. The British people were the lions, and we should ‘let that lion roar’. Johnson stressed: “We are not the lion. We do not claim to be the lion” (a Royal ‘we’, perhaps). But few doubt he would love to be the Lion King, one day.