Donald Macintyre's Tory Party Conference Sketch: Boris Johnson's jokes still pack a punch, but Theresa May landed the big hits


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Indy Politics

Boris Johnson had to overcome a hurdle greater than the mere defection to Ukip of his former deputy today: the earlier magisterial, grimly serious and rather scary speech by the 'Woman in Black', his sworn leadership rival, Theresa May. As she explained: “I am going to talk to you about the deadly terrorist threat we face.” Which she did. At length. How could Boris compete with her concentrated gravitas?   

He didn’t try. Boris doesn’t do grim. Or gravitas. Not yet, anyway. He kept the jokes. He brandished a brick he had brought along to underline his housebuilding pledge: “Brick, my little friend, you will not be alone in London.” He teased David Cameron over his royal gaffe by giving the conference “permission to purr” over the Scottish referendum result. Cameron laughed gamely; what else could he do? He said that last week the “baggage handlers” in Ed Miliband’s memory “went on strike and refused to load the word deficit on to the conveyor belt of his tongue.” (OK, you had to be there for that one).

The on-form stand-up does not conceal Boris’s inner seriousness, of course. At least about his own future. Even when he’s loyal – as he has to be for now – you wonder if he’s being ironic. Only one man had the “experience and respect in Europe to make the case for EU reform… the natural authority around that table in Brussels… That man is David Cameron.” You imagined Boris endlessly practising this unpalatable but obligatory line to make sure he didn’t swallow it. But given Cameron’s 26-2 defeat over Jean-Claude Juncker, was he subtly taking the mickey?

Admittedly, BoJo attributed the PM’s “authority” to his “leadership of Europe’s fastest growing economy”. A growth Boris seemed mainly to attribute to London’s “amazing success” under his mayoralty, explaining that “when the great London flywheel turns faster it helps to drive the vast and intricate locomotive that is the British economy”. No mention of the Chancellor – apart from one passing reference to something forgettable Osborne said on Monday. And, in an unscripted moment, he said, with lethal precision, that he had agreed with “much” in the May speech.   

May also went down well, not least her Thatcher-like aside on hate preachers: “Despite the European Court of Human Rights, I’ve kicked a few of them out of the country, too…” But Boris cheered them up. Having quoted Shakespeare – “He which hath no stomach to this fight, let him depart” (which they seem to be doing at an alarming  rate) – he punned: “That’s our new fisheries policy folks – first chuck Salmond overboard and then eat the kippers for breakfast.”

That’s Boris’s pitch against a strengthened May candidacy: a post-gravitas politician for a post-gravitas age.