A (far) right old Boris botch up

In one 'desperate attention-seeking' speech, London's Mayor put a match to the very thing that could win him the top job

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Boris has blown it. He was 5/1 favourite to be next Conservative leader, just ahead of Theresa May (6/1) and a little further ahead of, ahem, Michael Gove (9/1), and Philip Hammond (12/1). Bookies' odds in politics have always been a bit of a mystery, and the only time I decided I knew better than they did I lost money. That was on John Major ceasing to be Prime Minister by the end of 1995. (It wasn't as daft as it sounds: another time.)

Anyway, Boris Johnson was well fancied when he stood up on Wednesday to deliver the Margaret Thatcher lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies. Half an hour later, everything had changed. It was a brilliant speech, sharply observed, dealing with big themes; fluent, and very funny. And a complete disaster.

His claim to the Tory leadership is that he appeals across the spectrum to people who don't think of themselves as Tories, to soft Labour supporters and to non‑political people. His speech took that great advantage and tore it up in centrist voters' faces because he thought: In praise of Margaret Thatcher. What a jolly jape: let's wind up the lefties. He is a journalist, not a politician. A very good journalist. Possibly even a great one, but one who is careless of facts, which is why The Times sacked him long ago, and why he is an erratic politician.

I saw him speak at the Conservative conference in October. The audience was expectant. They had come for the jokes and the cheeking of their betters, and he busked it. His speech was flat. Not like the Thatcher lecture, on which he had obviously worked. Not that he has to work that hard at his writing. He is one of those fortunate people for whom the words – new, interesting, unexpected words – come easily, in a satisfying order, provided he writes them out in advance. Simon Raven might have been speaking for him: "I arrange words in pleasing patterns in order to make money."

So for a fringe speech at the Tory conference, attended by party chairmen and local worthies who would be influential in a Tory leadership contest, he did no work and performed merely adequately. But for a speech to the Margaret Thatcher Worship Society, a minority interest even in the Tory party, he put in about as much work as he would into two Daily Telegraph columns and, because it was on a subject he enjoyed, poking fun at the Thatcher-haters, it went off like a box of exploding frogs.

We know what he's up to, it was said. Greed is good; in praise of inequality; a defence of grammar schools. He's pitching for the Tory selectorate against Theresa May. But his pitch to the Tories who will choose the next leader used to be not that he is a hardline Thatcherite but that he isn't. His pitch used to be that he can win in the Labour-leaning capital.

What he was up to, as someone in Downing Street put it to me, was "desperate attention-seeking". Hence the elementary error of mentioning that some people have a higher IQ than others. He was making the simple point that people are different and therefore earn different amounts of money. The implication being, I think, that it would be counter-productive to try to narrow earnings differentials too much. But he had lost his thread by now and, dimly aware that IQ is a dangerous subject for Tories already accused of "writing people off", decided to play with the box of matches.

What was odd about the passage in praise of grammar schools, which followed, was not just that he had to pause to accept that Thatcher abolished the largest number of them. What was really strange was his refusal to engage with the facts. He was, as he proudly relates, a member of David Willetts' shadow education team when the Tory party ditched the policy of more selective schools in 2007. So he ought to know that grammar schools were, and are, in practice a way of consolidating social advantage rather than of promoting social mobility.

Indeed, he almost admitted it, imagining that Thatcher would have directed "a beam of maternal and terrifying devotion upon Michael Gove and everything he does" and saying that academies are a good thing.

What he said about greed – "a valuable spur to economic activity" – has been conventional economic theory since 1776. If he had phrased it as Adam Smith had done, no one would have noticed, let alone objected. But Boris wanted to be noticed. He hasn't had a lot of attention recently. So he let his controversialist instincts to override his inclusive ones.

That inclusiveness has been his greatest strength. He is a loveable celebrity buffoon, who is quite a good ambassador for London, but who has no real record as Mayor. He put his name to a bicycle hire scheme devised by his predecessor, and he hasn't messed things up for a city that was already becoming one of the best and most popular in the world.

Now, for the sake of shocking the puritans of the liberal-left, he has identified himself with the right wing of the Tory party and pointlessly abandoned the one thing that could get him the top job: his cross-party appeal.

Theresa May has just come a little closer to being Theresa Will.

twitter.com/@JohnRentoul

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