This week, David Cameron's speech to the Conservative Party Conference was billed as the headlining act. After all, he is prime minister. And he did very well, boldly communicating his vision for the party, how to build on current successes - such as the establishment of independent schools, and - how to do better, including bold plans on Britain crime, terrorism and, of course, the still-stagnant economy.
But despite Cameron exceeding expectations at the podium, he was upstaged by a man who might one day take his place (though of course, he won't overtly admit this): Mayor of London Boris Johnson. Boris swept into Birmingham with a large entourage, his trademark blond mop tousled further by the autumnal breeze and his voluminous personality pulling in all those in the near vicinity. Buoyed by his starring role as cheermeister at the Olympics and Paralympics, the launch of his well-received book and, of course, a hard-fought win over nemesis Ken Livingstone in the mayoral election, Hurricane Boris blew into the conference centre threatening to destroy all in its path.
And yet, by the time he took the podium for the pre-speech teaser (as only Boris can do, at a welcome reception the night before the main event) he was atypically reserved, disciplined (aside for the odd imaginative meandering) and even follically presentable. He didn't do away with his Borisness - wit, irreverence, unnatural confidence - but managed to keep his exuberance in check enough to come across as a, gulp, statesman. The question was whether he could repeat the feat the following morning. And, much to the chagrin of the Cameroons who view him as a usurper and a loose cannon, he did.
The audience in the crowded hall laughed at his jokes not because they were obliged to, but because Boris is genuinely funny. They were inspired by his bold policy statements about Britain's future as "a creative, confident, can-do country" because he has vision, and doesn't worry about towing the party line. He instinctively knows what is important to this country, and can explain this in clear, jargon-free terms. Furthermore, Boris can simplify the principals of the party he represents as mayor: "I am a Conservative. I believe in a low tax, low regulation economy."
More so than any other current British politician, there is something distinctly Churchillian about Boris, though Winston's wit was less overt. Yes, the Mayor does on occasion go off tilting at windmills as Churchill did. And true, he is certainly not lacking in ego. But on the big things - including keeping the EU's greedy hands off the City of London's assets, the need to do better for the middle class ("the backbone of London"), and supporting entrepreneurship, Boris is quite correct. As Churchill's career proved, this is perhaps the defining assessment of any politician's body of work.
Much like the Churchill that Peter Clarke brilliantly portrays in his book, Mr. Churchill's Profession, Boris has made his living by his pen. And, as with Winston, he actually writes, or at least is a significant contributor to, his own speeches (or, in some cases, just speaks extemporaneously). Cameron cannot claim that, nor can his counterpart across the Atlantic, whose inauguration address was, for good or for ill, crafted by a 27-year-old in a Washington DC Starbucks. (Yes, blogging police, I've used this example before.) The reason that Boris's rhetoric resonates is because there is a consistency between his writing, his off-microphone conversation and his public addresses. In all settings, Boris is Boris, and people can either take him or leave him.
Because he refuses to deliver one of the bland, homogenized, PR firm-approved borefests that are the crutch of his peers, Boris is free to inject his oversized personality into his words, which connects him with those in attendance and people watching from home. And, like Churchill, he doesn't back timidly away from saying what needs to be said, even when he knows it might be unpopular. Nor does he "wish to withdraw or modify a single word" (as Churchill said at an address following his 'Iron Curtain' speech in March 1946, which was largely unpopular at the time) when criticism comes. He also believes in the potential of Britain, enthusiastically conveying what Iain Martin of the Daily Telegraph rightly calls "a Reaganite sense of optimism."
And now for the non-Churchill side of 'The Mop.' With his unkempt hair, his publicity stunts and his inevitable post-speech gag reels, Boris projects a certain flippancy that leads to people dismissing him as an intellectual lightweight (a perception Churchill, with his more reserved, classical speaking style certainly did not face).
Yet anyone who appreciates the literary allusions in his speeches, reads his erudite blog posts for the Telegraph (which, again, he writes himself instead of relying on some junior staffer) and understands his positive impact as former editor of The Spectator - the very opposite of a lightweight publication - knows that Boris is, in fact, a well-read, eloquent and intellectually dynamic man. If anything, the comedian in Boris is arguably a persona he uses to disarm his doubters and opponents. As a speaker, the jokes hold the attention of a society that has lost all ability to concentrate in the Age of Distraction. And if they're still listening at the end, one could argue, perhaps listeners/viewers picked up something of value along the way.
And as for the charge that Boris just toys with the role of mayor or is just a self-interested showman, his two speeches this week show that when it comes to politics, Boris can be more substance than show (OK, mostly, jokes aside). He can explain policy. He can take on the resurgent Labour Party. When Cameron's time is over, this newfound focus that the Mayor of London has added to his formidable arsenal may well put him over the top. Unless, of course, Tory delegates play it safe with the eminently capable, sensible and moderate Michael Gove, aka the anti-Boris.