At last year’s party conference Boris Johnson, in a characteristically modest allusion to himself, ended his speech with the words “let the lion roar.”
The lion would ultimately mistake the word “roar” for “resign”, which meant that this year it would not, as a jobless backbencher and newspaper columnist lion, be granted the right to address the Conservative Party conference from the main stage. Instead he had to book his own facilities, and rent his own crowd.
It was a big room too, large enough, just about, to squeeze in everyone in the country who considers Boris Johnson to be a prime minister-in-waiting, and once he had squeezed them in, he certainly made them wait, for hours.
The front rows were packed out with the usual suspects from Corbyn’s KGB: Agents Patel, Paterson, Duncan Smith, Bone, Jenkin, the lot. The next great political scandal will surely be the uncovering of quite how much the Labour Party is paying these guys to guarantee Corbyn gets in to No 10. There’s nothing they won’t do.
Most of the crowd had queued for two and a half hours for a glimpse of their Potemkin prime minister. Johnson hasn’t got the courage for a proper leadership bid, nor has he got the numbers to win the argument on Brexit that he lost the day he walked out of the government, so all he can do is keep fighting the same battle, keep saying the same stuff, to the same crowd of true believers. The whole charade was a ploy to dress up his intervention with all the outward accoutrements of prime ministership, so as to conceal the glaring reality that there are no answers there. And it worked.
The temptation when talking about the speech is to shy away from the obvious point, which has not changed in years. Which is that Johnson seeks to cast himself as the Churchill for these “serious times” when he is the least serious politician in the land. And he speaks in hushed tones about the historic and perilous road ahead, when the peril has all been inflicted by him.
At one point he even had the temerity to say that the public are bored with “tedious, toxic” Brexit. That there was too much talk of it.
It’s always asked of Johnson that why would you call in the arsonist to put out the fire, but in that classic metaphor the arsonist fire brigade does at least arrive with ladder and hose.
Johnson arrived with nothing. He offered no alternative at all to the Chequers plan. The problem of the border in Ireland was scarcely mentioned. All he could do was raise his bicep in a kind of impotent Black Power salute and shout “chuck Chequers.” The crowd went wild.
He spoke at greater length on the dangers of Corbyn than anyone has done all week. He took time to articulate the fundamental differences between Corbynism and Conservatism, between the markets and state control, between public and private ownership. That he did so means he knows the threat is real. It was fully in keeping with an amusing trope of the conference, which is that no one has looked and sounded more panicked about Corbyn than the Brexiteers. Even Johnson, a man not even faintly acquainted with the consequences of his actions, appears perhaps subconsciously to understand that if it should happen, it will have been his fault more than anyone else. More, even, than Corbyn.
In his vaguely rousing conclusion to the Corbyn attack, he denounced him for agreeing to a second referendum, something which he expressly has not done, and in doing this thing he absolutely has not done, he has apparently “revealed himself to be a patsy to the EU”.
That, really, is the story here, and it’s the same old one. That through this rolling, neurotic Tory vanity saga, Johnson and the rest have transformed the UK’s age old friends and allies into enemies. That this noble, cooperative, peace-building project, of which we have been members for forty years, has been allowed to be mutated into something that has “patsies” for it.
He turned his fire not only on Theresa May’s Brexit plans but on one of her flagship policies while in the Home Office, which was the reform of the hated routine stop and search policy. The crowd loves that too. That he had the nerve to profess his loyalty to her at the end revealed the measure of the man.
Whether Johnson expects anyone either to know or to look up the obligatory obscure classical reference he must insert on these occasions has never quite been clear. Their principle purpose tends to be to remind his audience that he sees the world as a generously sized annexe on the back of the Oxford Union.
His dire warning that Chequers will end with “the UK effectively paraded in manacles down the Rue de la Loi like Caratacus”, must have been terribly frightening to anyone who understood it – which is a demographic evidently not large enough to include his own personal staff. When the hard copy of the speech arrived, Caratacus had become Caractacus, which is less first century British military chieftain and more Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
If Johnson expected people to go away and Google Caratacus he perhaps should have realised they’d get back more than he might have bargained for.
In the first century AD, Caratacus led a successful resistance against the Roman armies for almost ten years, using guerrilla style tactics. When it eventually came to open war however, they annihilated him. He was sent to Rome as a prize of war, with execution the inevitable outcome. But they let him address the Roman senate and his powers of oratory were such that they pardoned him and he lived out his days in Rome as a free man.
It’s an analogy that will only achieve completion a decade or so from now, when the UK rejoins the European Union, and Johnson takes up his natural role on the EU commission.
Far-fetched it may be, but on this evidence, it’s a far more realistic prize than the one he currently seeks.
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