The conclusion of this week's Conservative Party conference saw two different visions of post-Brexit Britain. In Johnson's fiery rhetoric, he called the party to "let the British lion roar" whereas Theresa May in, the speech she stumbled through, one moment being interrupted by a protestor the next moment losing her voice, stated that "now was the time to fulfil our duty to the British people." The messages of their respective speeches, contained in these snippets of rhetoric, couldn't be farther apart.
Theresa May's call for duty reflects her background as a dutiful public servant. One of the criticisms of the Prime Minister early on was that while she was dutiful public servant, she was running the country in the early stages of her political career like she ran a government department. The image of the dutiful servant of the nation is an idea that goes back to Europe's revolutionary movements during the Enlightenment when governments were called on to serve the people and not the interests of the monarchy. It also has other more disparate origins, one that stretches all the way back to old testament prophets and has more recently been reused as a description for Blair's New Labour. One's sense of duty however, strikes a particularly conservative chord. The Telegraph, for example, frequently uses the term duty to bemoan that the education system is failing to instil the proper sense of Britishness in children by not teaching them the value of doing one's duty. In her speech on Wednesday, May couldn't have embodied the image of the dutiful public servant better as she carried on in her speech through the interruptions of a protestor and her own coughing and loss of voice. She kept calm and carried on, the paragon of British duty.
Johnson's message couldn't be more different. The roar of the lion, not only conjures up violent, wild images but it goes to an era shrouded in myth. In the medieval foundations of Britain, Lions frequently appeared on the crests of houses all across Europe. Johnson may appear bumbling, but he knows how to turn a phrase that strikes a chord in the imagination. His view of post-Brexit Britain is ancient in that it conjures up the old image of the lion, but it is also new in that it definitively moves Britain away from the enlightenment, democratic images of public servants and duty. The lion roars in the market place, on the battle field, but rarely at the desks of dutiful public servants. Ironically, Johnson, the bumbling elitist, manages to conjure up a metaphor that strikes a chord across the social strata, outside of the world of the dutiful white-collar office worker.
But how will the lion roar without a clean break in Brexit negotiations? And if, an almost impossible feat, Johnson gets his wish and Theresa May's plans for a two-year post Brexit period are swept aside, how will Britain, suddenly fetter-less, announce itself to the world. America is trying to manage the child they elected into the oval office and the EU will hardly warm to being charged at by a wild beast they have so begrudgingly cut loose. And on the other hand, how will current government fulfil its duty to the people, acting as its tireless servants when the current government is in such an ideological stand off as to how to carry out their duty? Let alone the fact that the nation is heading into Brexit is as divided as ever?
However, we shouldn't be surprised to see such conflict at the conservative party conference. Not only is conflicting rhetoric the nature of politics but it is particularly the nature of British politics. Without a modern revolutionary moment or a single constitution set in stone, British politics has always been a "make it up as you go along" sort of affair. In her speech, Theresa May said that "the Tories must win the battle of ideas again." But perhaps it is not only the Tories that must win the battle of ideas within the nation, but within their own party. For in this moment, these two competing ideas of post-Brexit Britain, the lion and the servant cannot sustain the standoff. Lions often eat unaware but dutiful servants and dutiful servants, often kill lions. Before the current prime minister can carry out her vision of dutifully serving the nation, she needs to win the battle of ideas within her own party. If one of the extraordinary distinctions of British politics is that it literally can be "made up as you go along," then the Prime Minister should make things up quicker. She needs to get her party behind her idea of post-Brexit Britain otherwise the lions roar may very well deafen us all.