It is such a mistake for senior Tory politicians and journalists — Ken Clarke and Max Hastings are the latest — to complain that Boris Johnson ‘isn’t serious’. It is because he isn’t serious that people like him. And since we live in postmodern politics, his lack of seriousness is seen by his fans to qualify him for the highest office. After all, those politicians who consider themselves serious — the great majority — are not saying anything seriously interesting, and Mr Unserious Johnson remains the only Conservative to win an important electoral contest (twice) since 1992. It is unwise of them to draw attention to Boris’s greatest asset. It would be more cunning to say that he isn’t funny.
So it is left to the Mayor to launch the best criticism of himself. At the ConservativeHome rally in his honour on Monday night, Boris told us that he was ‘the biggest harvester of undeserved credit’. It is true. The following morning, the Daily Mail ran the headline ‘Rock Star Reception For Boris As He Says: Bring Back Grammar Schools’. I was there, and I can witness that he said nothing of the sort. Put on the spot by a pro-grammar school Asian, who had moved out of east London in search of better schools, Boris hummed and hawed, and muttered that he was not necessarily against selective education. The Mail clutched at this straw. I heard one enthusiast here tell the BBC that Boris has ‘je ne sais quoi: he’s honest; he’s bombastic.’ Personally, I would not attribute either of those qualities to the great man; but just now he is all things to all men, and that, as the originator of the phrase in the New Testament points out, is a good thing to be.
So much attention focuses on Boris that less is paid to the sponsors of his rally. But ConservativeHome has become very important. Now that so many aspects of the old Tory tribe — mass membership, for instance — have vanished, this website is the nearest thing to the authentic voice of Conservative opinion. Like Militant in the Labour party in the 1980s, it can always say, when challenged, ‘we are not a movement; we are a newspaper’ (in web form). ConHome’s bread and butter, which ensures about 20,000 hits a day, is its news, produced early in the morning and ready for consumption by 8.30. Unlike Militant, it is not entryist, or extreme. Its conservatism is modernising, but more demotic and less guilt-ridden than the Cameroon version. ‘Strong and compassionate’ is its slogan. It is more Bolton West than Kensington West. It also uses polls, provided by its proprietor, Lord Ashcroft, to give statistical evidence of what is actually happening to voter opinions. This gives it much greater power than would mere assertion. As this column has said before (see Notes, 18 February), this means that Lord Ashcroft is now a more politically influential ‘press’ proprietor with the Tories than Lord Rothermere or Rupert Murdoch, at a tiny fraction of the cost. The Tory leadership dislikes and fears ConHome. At ConHome’s party on Sunday, David Cameron spoke. He did not mention the website. Instead, he praised Ashcroft and urged him to go and buy a national newspaper (the Times?). This was a diversionary tactic: Ashcroft is richer and better-placed staying where he is.
The basic view of ConservativeHome and its director, Tim Montgomerie, is that there is no way that David Cameron can win an overall majority for the Tories at the next election. This is not exactly a hostile, anti-Cameron thought — more its sober judgment (which, by the way, I don’t agree with) of psephological reality. This only makes it worse for Mr Cameron, of course, because it makes the search for his successor after defeat in 2015 seem like a scientific necessity. The Boris rally, however, cast aside any sense of objectivity and began with a laudatory comic video of Boris — actually a body double, I think — doing heroic tricks on his bicycle. Then the great man strode in, to wide applause. I felt for a moment that the whole show was causing him to overplay his hand like Lord Hailsham’s disastrous declaration of his candidacy at a fringe meeting of the Tory conference in 1963. But no, everything Boris said was menacingly loyal to David Cameron.
On the train up, I read the Sunday newspapers. I did so just after finishing Artemis Cooper’s authoritative new biography of Patrick Leigh Fermor. In it, she writes that in 1961, Paddy contributed an article on Gluttony (and prudently turned down Lust) to a series the Sunday Times was running on the Seven Deadly Sins. The authors of the other sins were Cyril Connolly, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Edith Sitwell, Angus Wilson and Evelyn Waugh. Today, I suppose, it would start with Jeremy Clarkson, and go downhill from there.
My sole contribution to the history of the Conservative party is that I persuaded William Hague, when he became its leader, to shorten the party conference. In those days, the leader’s speech was delivered on a Friday afternoon, and was reported on the Saturday, when the papers are less interested in hard news than they are on weekdays. Hague agreed, and cut the conference back to Thursday. Then it was cut to Wednesday afternoon. This year, for the first time, the leader’s speech ends it all on the Wednesday morning. There is a grim logic to all of this, which is that, since the conference quite long ago ceased to belong to the voluntary party and is now the property of the leadership, the only way to keep it sweet is to keep it short. In another ten years, it will last only a day. So I regret my unintended contribution to one of the most surprising features of modern politics. The 20th century brought in the universal franchise. The 21st century is busy hollowing it out.
My first Tory conference was in 1981 — a year of tremendous strain for the party. Oddly enough, my feeling then was that everything would turn out all right. It did. Equally oddly, I have the same feeling in 2012.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 13 October 2012