In politics, as in comedy, timing is everything. At his long-awaited Tory leadership launch at the Royal Academy of Engineering, Boris Johnson was just getting into his stride, talking about how “the people of this country deserve better from their leaders”.
As if on cue, a loudhailer heckle penetrated the hushed splendour of the Grade 1-listed building. “Bollocks to Boris!” yelled Steve Bray, the anti-Brexit protestor standing in the street outside.
It was an earthy Anglo-Saxonism of which Johnson would normally be proud but, despite the distraction, he carried on with his set-piece speech. Having spent weeks avoiding any public utterance, he was not going to depart from the carefully-crafted words he had in front of him.
Johnson has spent his whole career using comedy as both a political weapon and a shield. One-liners are effective attack lines, just as the ‘only a joke’ defence can help him wriggle out of the many scrapes he’s landed himself in.
Yet this launch was deliberately designed to be a sober, serious affair, a rebuttal to all the charges that the famous ‘Clown Prince’ of British politics was not fit to take the crown of prime minister.
It was also intended as a stark contrast with that shocking moment three long years ago, when Johnson staged a leadership event that rapidly turned into a resignation announcement.
Packing the room were faces from the 2016 ‘launch-pad implosion’ in St Ermin’s Hotel, Westminster, when he crashed out following Michael Gove’s betrayal. Nadine Dorries, who had burst into tears back then, had a front-row seat once more. The loyal Johnson inner circle of Jake Berry, Ben Wallace and Nigel Adams was also present.
What was different this time was the audience was packed with 2015 and 2017 intake MPs such as Robert Jenrick and Lucy Frazer, as well as a heavyweight collection of Brexiteers from Iain Duncan Smith to Jacob Rees-Mogg. Even ‘the Bills and the Bernards’, a phrase David Cameron used to deride Eurosceptics, were in the crowd, with knights of the shire Sir Bill Cash and Sir Bernard Jenkin showing support.
Crucially, there were also the newly-acquired fixers - former chief whip Gavin Williamson and former party chairman Grant Shapps. Looking around the packed room, Adams joked: “Not a bad turnout.”
One influential figure missing was Sir Lynton Crosby, the Australian campaign guru who helped him twice win the mayor’s office in London. Three years ago, Crosby was present in the next room as Johnson made his dramatic leadership withdrawal speech, trying to cope with chaos even he’d not seen before in his long years in the game.
It was Crosby’s discipline that helped Johnson win City Hall, getting him to cut the gags and trot out policy mantras. While there is no formal link, Johnson still talks daily to Crosby on the phone and the ghostly presence of the ‘Wizard of Oz’ hung over proceedings as the candidate stuck rigidly to his script.
For perhaps the first time in his life, he uttered almost every word as it appeared before him. A far cry from the freewheeling verbal gymnast that for which he is renowned, Johnson kept checking the speech in front of him, his only improvisation his regular thumps of the lectern.
He did permit himself one ad-lib, changing a line about the ‘sizzling synergy’ of the private and public sectors to ‘sizzling syzygy’ (a Greek word for the alignment of sun, moon and Earth), but that was it.
Aides point out that Johnson is his own inimitable speechwriter, adding “all the best lines are his”. His main soundbite on the dangers of Brexit delay - “kick the can again and we kick the bucket” - was delivered exactly as rehearsed.
The main argument was simple and direct, that Brexit was a cry from a neglected public that ‘wanted to be heard’. He even appeared to water down the no-deal rhetoric that had put Brexiteer bums on seats in the audience, saying he was “not aiming” for an exit without an agreement, adding it was just a “vital tool of negotiation”.
Yet apart from a line about Leeds needing a new tram system, this was a markedly London-centric speech with little in the way of new policy. Tellingly, he spent more time talking about his record as the capital’s Mayor than about his troubled tenure as foreign secretary.
The lunar pull of London was obvious, and a key aim was to reassure more moderate, Remain-backing supporters that the ‘liberal Boris’ of yesteryear was alive and well. He paid tribute to former City Hall helpers James Cleverley and Kit Malthouse, without adding that they were so unconvinced of his leadership abilities that they briefly ran for the top job themselves.
Johnson somehow failed to namecheck another audience member, Ray Lewis, his deputy who quit for lying during the early chaos of the London mayoralty. During a recall of his crime-cutting achievements, a further omission was a shout-out for Bernard Hogan-Howe, the former Met police commissioner who had turned up to offer support.
So far, so atypical, for a Johnson event. But it was when the media questions came that he couldn’t resist the roar of the crowd, and the need to make a wisecrack. BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg’s description of his lack of trustworthiness was dismissed as a “great minestrone of observation”.
When SkyNews’s Beth Rigby said he “brought shame on your party when you described veiled Muslim women as letterboxes and bank robbers”, the boos from his supporters were loud.
Instead of calming the crowd, Johnson launched into a typically shape-shifting defence of his offensive remarks. The public were sick of politicians “muffling and veiling our language…when what they want to hear is what we genuinely think”. On the other hand, he was sorry for offence caused. Sorry-not-sorry was the overall impression.
It was a reminder that ‘cakeism’ (“my policy on cake is pro-having it and pro-eating it” is a quote he made well before the EU referendum) is not just Johnson’s solution for Brexit, it’s his wider political modus operandi. But critics see nakedly populist pitches, later muddied with half-apologies, as a far cry from a straight-talking leader who owns his statements and their consequences.
The slipperiness was most evident when Johnson was asked directly about his quote to GQ magazine in 2007 that he had taken cocaine as an Oxford student and remembered it “vividly”. Looking briefly to the heavens for inspiration, he launched into verbiage that suggested he had taken the drug, without saying so directly.
“I think the canonical account of this event when I was 19 has appeared many times and I think what most people in this country really want us to focus on is what we can do for them and what our plans are for this great country of ours.”
His team felt that he handled the issue effectively, showing a subtlety that helped David Cameron bury from public debate his own ‘student experience’ with drugs. Yet his obfuscation failed to satisfy the Daily Mail reporter who asked the question. “What about the coke?!” he yelled, as Johnson moved on to the next media question.
What about the coke?!
No one in the Boris camp thinks his private life will ever harm him with the public as most have ‘priced in’ his rogueish reputation. The real danger however is that a lack of trustworthiness on policy and politics could prove his undoing.
And perhaps the most damaging part of his entire launch came when he failed to answer the Guardian’s question as to whether he would resign rather than be pushed around by a Parliament that blocked no-deal.
Filibustering for all he was worth, he used Theresa May’s own line about “bumps in the road” ahead and was fabulously unspecific. Was he swapping jester politics, for gesture politics, just issuing empty threats to Brussels like May had once done? No wonder a few Brexiteers shuffled in their seats.
Johnson waffled about wanting a “fantastic, intense, intimate relationship” with the EU (unusually, his only innuendo of the entire day). Yet for many it is not his relationship with drugs or with Europe that worries them most: it’s his difficult relationship with the truth. That, as much as any boos of journalists, is the most damaging parallel with Donald Trump.
The former foreign secretary once said that “nailing Blair is like trying to pin jelly to a wall”, but that is in many ways his own strategy. Allies say retail detail on policy is not what the public want from a leader. He certainly paints in broad brush strokes. The downside is the result can look like a Rothko painting, bold but abstract and fuzzy at the edges.
Given this was the first time Johnson had opened himself to public questioning in months, several reporters were furious that just six queries were allowed. “Disgrace!” and “what are you afraid of, Boris?” were among the heckles as he left the stage.
His advisers are unrepentant. “Why should he waste half a day prepping for a 10-minute Today programme interview, when he can spend that time talking to the people who matter most at this stage: fellow MPs?” one aide said. The lack of scrutiny may be cynical and ruthless, but for them it is brutally effective.
A few hours after his launch, the second big test of the day was meant to be the official hustings of the backbench Tory 1922 Committee back in the House of Commons.
It was in the 1922 hustings three years ago that May first road-tested her infamous line “Brexit means Brexit”. It went down well at the time, but its meaninglessness has since made backbenchers wary of similar slogans.
In Committee Room 14, Johnson firmed up his no-deal appeal, telling MPs: “It’s not the preferred option but any responsible government must prepare for it and I will do it.”
Veteran backbencher Sir Keith Simpson came out of the hustings early, having heard enough. For all his attempt at seriousness and a moderate tone, Johnson couldn’t resist the hard stuff of a no-deal Brexit, he suggested. “He’s like an alcoholic singing a temperance song. The minute he hears the cork being pulled on a bottle of gin, he’s back on the sauce.”
Gavin Williamson, the former chief whip who is playing a key role organising Johnson’s Parliamentary troops, guarded the inside of a door to the committee. At one point, he popped out, mobile clamped to his ear, to utter an ironic warning to a colleague. “You shouldn’t say that on the phone, you’ll get fired,” he said.
Inside the room, Johnson made MPs laugh with a line about on fracking - “Maybe we should frack Lewisham?” - but it was Brexit that was his main message. “It would be a near extinction event if we fail to Leave,” he said.
A promise as much as a threat, this was the crux of his sales pitch: vote for me as the best leader to man the trenches against the coming hoards of Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party ‘people’s army’. The implication was clear that if a snap election was needed this autumn to break the Parliamentary deadlock, then he was the only one who could win a majority.
Rival candidates like Matt Hancock think that’s the wrong lesson from the European elections and Peterborough by-election and that a pitch to moderate Tories flocking to the Lib Dems is the way to avoid an ‘extinction’ rebellion.
Significantly, he also stressed the point that “when push comes to shove” a significant number of Labour MPs in Leave areas were going to find it almost impossible to bring the government down over Brexit.
In a spooky piece of timing, the division bell rang as Labour tried its audacious attempt to block a no-deal exit with a Parliamentary motion. Johnson, flanked as always by his former ministerial aide Conor Burns, joined a herd of Tory MPs as they voted against.
When the result came out – a government victory of 11 – a victory yell went up inside the Committee Room and desks were banged in approval. Down in the chamber below, Jeremy Corbyn muttered “you won’t be cheering in September”, when the issue returns to ministers under a new Tory leader.
The incident was a microcosm of the chaos over Brexit right now, with 10 Remainer Tories and eight Leaver Labour MPs defying their respective whips. One senior Tory was so incensed by Dominic Grieve’s warning he would bring down the government that he told a colleague: “It’s a fucking disgrace…the whip should be withdrawn from the lot of them”.
When MPs reconvened after the vote interruption, Johnson faced some hostile questioning from Steve Brine, a strong supporter of Jeremy Hunt. Would he prorogue Parliament? “I’m strongly not attracted to it,” Johnson replied, in typically elastic fashion.
He said parliament should not defy the will of the people on Brexit, but the fact remained that MPs were “the representatives of the people” too. For his enemies, the failure to give clarity was yet more proof of his principle-free, evasive nature.
Brine had a follow up question. Did Johnson stand by his plan to cut taxes for the better off? The candidate didn’t back off. “We shouldn’t be embarrassed about making the case for lowering the taxes of senior nurses, senior policemen,” he replied.
They're not stupid. But some of them are venal.
One minister said Johnson had not once mentioned what was best for the country or the economy on Brexit, only what was best for the Tory party. Colleagues were aware that his pitch was flawed yet were ready to vote for him to get a government job, they said. “They’re not stupid. But some of them are venal.”
After the hustings, Johnson was back in his large, fourth-floor office in Portcullis House, sticking stubbornly to his plan of working every last vote before the first round ballot on Thursday. It’s this practice of meeting and greeting a dozen MPs every day that has transformed his chances this time around.
In his office, he chatted to several MPs who had visited his lair before and gone away unconvinced. The ‘waverers’ were back, asking him questions one-on-one, testing his credentials before joining the bandwagon. But the fact they were back suggested he was still continuing to appeal to a wide swath of the party.
“The main aim of today was not to make any mistakes,” said one ally. “Job done,” another added. The biggest difference since 2016 is a sense of order and organisation. One former aide who knows him well, added: “Looking back, it was the best thing ever to happen to Boris that he didn’t become leader after the referendum. Theresa had to deal with the Brexit problem he created. Now he looks like he’s the one cleaning up her mess.”
Over in Millbank Tower, Sajid Javid - seen as the tortoise to Johnson’s hare in this race - launched his own campaign with a dig at the earlier “Trumpian tactics” of Johnson supporters booing journalists. Javid also had a ready-made jibe that he knew would guarantee a soundbite on the evening news. “I’m the change candidate, Boris Johnson is yesterday’s news”.
But for the Johnson camp, Javid was making the same mistake many others had already made: getting off the ground too late. Graham Brady, Penny Mordaunt, Malthouse, Cleverley and others were all doomed by their prevarication that meant MPs were signed up to rivals within hours of May’s resignation announcement. “They missed the boat, plain and simple,” said one MP.
Javid, Hunt, Gove and Hancock had all suffered from the fact they had ministerial duties to carry out, and none of the time Johnson spent assiduously courting colleagues one by one. Javid in particular spends a lot of time as Home Secretary doing his day job, signing off countless orders and security matters in his red box every night.
And it’s true that in politics timing is everything. Despite Javid’s jibe, Johnson’s main asset is that he is seen as ‘today’s news’, the candidate for right now. Even though many of his backers have no real idea what’s on the horizon, they think he’s the only possible leader who can protect them from the twin threat of Farage and Corbyn. Again, the undertone is that others may be a better fit for a 2022 election, but Johnson was the one for a snap election.
After the leadership event, former Tory chairman and key Johnson lieutenant Grant Shapps said: “I just thought, sitting there, listening to him speak, there is a man who can take the English language, mobilise it and send it into battle, that’s what we need.”
That line was a deliberate quote from the Oscar-winning Winston Churchill movie, Darkest Hour, when Lord Halifax gives his verdict in the peers gallery of the House of Commons on the wartime PM’s ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech.
“It really feels like this is Boris’s time,” said one ally. “For all his shortcomings and character flaws, he’s the man we need. If we weren’t in the mess we are, he may not be the right candidate. But we are and he is.”
Up in the Royal Academy of Engineering, an exhibition on the walls hailed ‘equations that changed the world’. Johnson’s political equation is simple: Boris equals survival. It’s still a risk, but for the scores of MPs backing him, serious times call for desperate measures. And that’s no joke.