Boris Johnson is not unfamiliar with taking the platform at Conservative Party conferences. Indeed, this is a man who has crashed into and then crashed out of a succession of conferences — usually with a combination of befuddled bamboozlement and buffoonery — generally to the joy of the expectant media but to the chagrin of whoever has been prime minister at the time.
Conference speeches are, of course, as much about political theatre and performance as they are about content and detail. The challenge for Johnson is that he is too well known for theatre and performance, and too often offbeat when it comes to content and detail. Fate has also so far defined his premiership in terms of crisis management — first in relation to dealing with the UK’s Brexistential angst, secondly in relation to dealing with the COVID pandemic.
So far, he has therefore been a highly “exceptional” prime minister operating in highly exceptional times. The great benefit of working in crisis conditions for any politician is that personal indiscretions and a degree of free-wheeling are, to some extent, overlooked. The same is true when it comes to the absence of any clear and coherent domestic vision. “We are in the middle of a crisis!” can quieten even the most ardent critic.
But as Johnson stepped onto the stage he was at one and the same time as powerful as he had ever been and as weak as he had ever been. He is powerful in the sense that he commands a loyal majority in parliament, has just completed a position-bolstering reshuffle, and remains well ahead of the Labour Party in terms of current public voter-intentions. But he’s weak in the sense that he is now totally exposed. Without the loud din and immediate chaos created by crises he must clearly demonstrate a capacity to govern.
This was conference crunch time and the key question was whether Johnson could convince a global audience that he can be a serious politician. The pre-event media smoke-signalling certainly tried to frame a very new brand of blonde ambition. Reports teased this as a speech in which Johnson would show himself as a grown up able to lead a government with the “guts” to tackle “the problems that no government has had the guts to tackle before”.
This speech was not so much about a change of direction for the government as an attempt by the Prime Minister to convince his party and the public that he could be a competent leader. So how did he do?
Not well. The core essence of “build back better” was lost in a sea of jokes and jape. The United States is accepting British beef: “Build back burgers!” Wildlife is returning to the countryside: “Build back beaver!”
This was less of a coherent speech and more of a frantic diatribe delivered at such a pace that the audience looked bemused at the spectacle unfolding before them. One minute the Prime Minister was talking about having “his chestnuts pulled out of a tartarian pit” the next about the delights of the village of Stoke Poges. He threw in references to fibre optic vermicelli, monkey glands, coagulated roundabouts, royal jelly and pensive quills. At one point he seemed to suggest the direction the country was going in had something to do with the need to urinate in bushes.
As for “the big idea”, levelling up was certainly talked up. It was “the greatest project any government can embark on”. Nothing more, nothing less. His last major policy statement on the levelling agenda was decried by many commentators for an almost complete lack of substance. This time, so many substantive policies were placed within the protean project that is levelling-up that it became almost impossible to see what is was not.
It’s crime reduction, transport, digital infrastructure, home ownership, skills. And most of all it’s capitalism. An adviser had obviously suggested that levelling up could do with a dose of intellectual inspiration and suddenly Johnson used his conference speech to mention that he’d remembered a book by the 17th century economist Vilfredo Pareto that seemed to be relevant.
By the end of the speech the audience appeared almost stunned into silence. Is this what it looks like when the Prime Minister demonstrates his capacity to govern? The rictus smiles on the faces of his cabinet colleagues arguably revealed far more than the speech had done. What was promised was an agenda for change — detailed, clear and precise. What was delivered was a cacophony of clichés and very poor jokes.
If this was “the showman to statesman test” then Boris failed miserably. He finished with a flop that was almost deafening. He is more exposed than ever.