K E Y P O I N T S
- Boris Johnson demanded Theresa May “chuck Chequers” as the proposal was “not democracy” – to rapturous applause from more than 1,000 Tory activists.
- The rally had a guest list of 22 MPs – enough to sink Chequers – including David Davis, Iain Duncan Smith and Priti Patel.
- Johnson went as far to suggest the authors of the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan “risk prosecution” as it would leave the UK “paraded in manacles” by the EU.
- The former Foreign Secretary took a swipe at his fellow Brexiteer Michael Gove for suggesting the current deal could be improved later. “Do not believe we can get it wrong now, bodge it now and fix it later,” he said. “That is a total fantasy.”
- Away from Brexit, Johnson also set out what he saw as domestic priorities for the party which he said had now lost “confidence in its basic belief in freedom”.
- He said an “open goal” for the party was helping young people buy a home. Local councils, Johnson argued, should be given the ability to retain stamp duty, council tax, and business rates, which would act as a motive for growth.
- Johnson demanded the party “cut taxes” – May and Chancellor Phillip Hammond had indicated taxes in the next Budget will rise to help pay for the NHS.
- Johnson argued the government should bring back stop and search – a police power the PM curbed while home secretary.
- While the implicit target of his speech was the Prime Minister, Johnson also took aim at Jeremy Corbyn and Labour as a “weaselly cabal of superannuated Marxists and Hugo Chavez-admiring, anti-Semitism-condoning Kremlin apologists”.
S N A P V E R D I C T
From HuffPost UK’s politics editor, Paul Waugh
As ever with Boris Johnson and the party faithful, it was all about sex. “If I have a function here today – it is to try, with all humility, to put some lead in the collective pencil,” he said. Given that Theresa May has no ‘pencil’, the message didn’t need much decoding: only a red-blooded, true-blue Tory like him could give Britain the leadership it needs.
The macho, un-PC approach permeated the whole speech, and all the trademark verbal flourishes and tired jokes were rolled out as he aimed for the Brexiteers’ sweet spot. One female fan wore a T-shirt this week with the slogan: “I like my Brexit like I like my men: hard”. She, along with the 1,500 audience, would have loved that the phrase “chuck Chequers” that ran through Johnson’s address like a stick of Blackpool rock. “The facts of life are Conservative,” Boris told us, the innuendo barely clothed.
Some actual policies were floated, but all of them seemed to come back to one thing: Boris himself. His plea for “fiscal devolution”, to take tax powers from the Treasury and give them to Mayors, is a legacy of his battles with George Osborne. His call for the return of “stop and search” was a reminder that as Home Secretary Theresa May ditched the practice against his wishes. His read-my-lips demand for the Tories to promise “no new tax increases” felt more like a personal attack on Hammond and May’s hint that the NHS will need tax hikes to fund it.
Others scores were settled too, in brutal fashion. Michael Gove, the man who famously stabbed him in the back during his last stalled leadership bid, was pinned on the bullseye as Johnson attacked those Brexiteers in Cabinet who think the best option is to get to March and then reform the Chequers plan. The “bodge it now and fix it later” jibe won one of the biggest cheers of the event.
The gags about Corbyn’s string vest and allotments tickled the crowd, yet in tone and gesture it was Johnson who “aped” the revolutionaries of the Left. He banged the lectern like Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev, and even held a clenched fist aloft to say “chuck Chequers”. The ideological fervour was purer than that of any Che Guevara acolyte, as he actually said that defeating the PM’s proposal made him more anxious than “global warming or terrorism or Rouhani’s Iran or Putin’s Russia”.
As usual, the whole speech was carefully scripted to make it sound unscripted. As the old saying goes, if you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made. The only bit that was genuinely ad libbed was his opener that “My friend Philip Hammond thinks I’ll never become Prime Minister. That’s the first Treasury forecast in a long time to have the distinct ring of truth”. The line itself was a classic bit of Johnsonian disingenuousness. This is the man who said he’d never re-enter Parliament, never run for the Tory leadership and who promised millions for the NHS. Can fellow Tory MPs - and the wider public outside this conference - believe a word he says?
But for his fans and critics alike, today was a climax delayed. It remains to be seen if enough Tory MPs follow his lead and defeat May in the Commons. If they do, that’s when he will finally have to declare he wants to replace the PM. What he really meant today was not “chuck Chequers” but “f*ck Chequers”.
Two years on from the EU referendum, the question is a familiar one: in making love to the Tory party, will Boris Johnson screw the country? We’ll find out at last this autumn.
K E Y V I D E O
R E A C T I O N
Supportive Tory MPs were pleased with what they heard.
But not everyone was impressed. Business Minister Claire Perry told Sky News: “It’s a travelling circus that comes to town. He thrives on publicity, he doesn’t have a policy backbone anywhere on him. Who doesn’t want to see the court jester arrive?”
David Davis meanwhile said Johnson’s speech was “nice and clear” - but added the prime minister had a different task when she addresses party members tomorrow. “She’s got to give a serious speech about the future of not just Brexit but all the other elements of the domestic strategy – which of course Boris was talking about too. She’ll make a good speech,” he said.