Sam Leith

Boris Johnson’s speech was a triumph

Boris Johnson’s speech was a triumph
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If you were listening to the Prime Minister’s keynote address to party conference, you would not for a second have suspected that the country’s petrol stations were empty, its service industries hopelessly short of staff, its pigs being slaughtered on farms for want of abattoir workers and its Christmas turkeys on the line. You would have left the hall with the sense that here was a nation in boisterous good health and irrepressible high spirits.

That, among other things, was why Boris Johnson’s speech was a triumph. No doubt the factcheckers will rip it to tatters. No doubt there will be grumbles among hostile political scientists about its vagueness on policy. No doubt various sobersides will deplore its frivolity, its refusal to address the gravity of our present difficulties.

But it did what a political speech of this sort needs to, and it succeeded for just the reasons that the naysayers will have been enraged. It positively radiated confidence, relaxed good humour and cheerfulness. Which is to say that it decided on its own terms of engagement both in subject matter and in tone; here was a Tory speech that refused to paint the hall blue.

Sir Keir Starmer would love to have seen a Prime Minister at bay: defensive, resentful or cross. Instead we got one who felt able to tease the previous Labour leader as a 'corduroyed communist cosmonaut' and the present one as 'like a seriously rattled bus conductor pushed this way and that by a Corbynista mob of Sellotape-spectacled sans-culottes, or the skipper of a cruise liner that has been captured by Somali pirates desperately trying to negotiate a change of course and then changing his mind'. 

That amused indulgence is much deadlier than open hostility. It’s a version of what Sir Keir aimed for when he called Mr Johnson a 'trivial man'; but Johnson’s laughter is more rhetorically effective than Starmer’s contempt.

Again and again, tricky political issues were brushed aside con brio and opponents dismissed with a gag. The submarine ruckus was not, here, an international diplomatic incident but a swashbuckling triumph conducted in the face of the 'raucus squawkus from the anti-Aukus caucus'.

The PM’s exordium expressed delight that 'we' were meeting in person again for a 'traditional Tory cheek-by-jowler', as if the last two years had been the interruption to an enjoyable conversation. He segued from there into a boosterish discussion of the success of the UK’s vaccination programme – a success he felt on solid ground talking about.

Johnson’s buttonholing, cajoling style was at full blast. 'I’ll tell you, my friends,' he’d say, and later: 'I’ll tell you something else.' 

He constantly repeated phrases – 'to rub home my point, to rub home my point' – as if he was trying to make himself heard over applause, even when he wasn’t. We were 'folks', 'my friends'. He affected to ask the audience to confirm facts and statistics for him, and used rhetorical questions to frame his remarks as propositions to which anyone sane would naturally agree: 'Is it not a sublime irony..?'

Even his teasing of Michael Gove’s trip to a nightclub – 'Jon Bon Govey' – was calculated to give the sense of affectionate joshing between friends – that this was not a faction-ridden political party but a great jolly gang which all assembled should feel happy to be part of: 'the most jiving, hip, happening and generally funkapolitan party in the world.'

There was a good deal of clever triangulation going on amid all those alliterative gags and that air-punching. So after making the obligatory obeisances to 'our' 'untiring, unbelievable, unbeatable NHS', for instance, he painted a picture of the 'tide of anxiety washing into every A & E' as the country opened up again from those whose health problems had been shouldered aside by the Covid crisis:

Does anyone seriously imagine that we should not now be raising the funding to sort this out? Is that really the view of responsible Conservatives? I can tell you something: Margaret Thatcher would not have ignored this meteorite that has just crashed through the public finances. She would have wagged her finger and said more borrowing now is just higher interest rates and even higher taxes later.

Here was a deft attempt to prevent the left from monopolising the idea of compassion (what sort of monster wouldn’t want to heal the sick?); while at the same time administering a base-pleasing smack of firm fiscal discipline (which true disciple of the Lady would borrow, rather than raise taxes, to pay for it?).

Later, having played on a few famous lines from Thomas Gray’s 'Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard', he extended the conceit by talking about the place of the poem’s composition:

Anybody know? Correct! Thank you. He was standing in Stoke Poges. My friends, there may be underprivileged parts of this country but Stoke Poges is not now among them. In fact, it was only recently determined by the Daily Telegraph – and if you can’t believe that, what can you believe, my friends? – to be the 8th richest village in England. Since Gray elegised, Buckinghamshire has levelled up to be among the most productive regions in the whole of Europe. Stoke Poges may still of course have its problems – but they are the overwhelmingly caused the sheer lust of other people to live in or near Stoke Poges. Overcrowded trains...endless commutes...too little time with the kids...the constant anxiety that your immemorial view of chalk downland is going to be desecrated by ugly new homes.

Deft, again. Here he’s seeking to show that 'levelling up' the regions isn’t just a parcel of bribes for traditional Labour voters; effectively, he’s reassuring the true-blue Tories of prosperous, picturesque Stoke Poges and places like it that it’s a favour to them too. If we level them up, those ghastly Northerners won’t come and live near you!

He threaded the needle again when he asked: 

Why does half of York’s population boast a degree and only a quarter of Doncaster’s? This is not just a question of social justice: it is an appalling waste of potential, and it is holding this country back.

Dealing with deprivation, in this account, is not 'social justice warrior' stuff; it's good business-friendly sense to create economic activity.

He made showily compassionate noises about legal immigrants, and sought to claim environmentalism as Tory territory too:

We are going to re-wild parts of the country and consecrate a total of 30 per cent to nature. We are planting tens of millions of trees. Otters are returning to rivers from which they have been absent for decades. Beavers that have not been seen on some rivers since Tudor times, massacred for their pelts, are now back – and if that isn’t Conservatism, my friends, I don’t know what is. Build back beaver!

Even his intervention in the culture wars – wearying but obligatory – was done relatively lightly, and was used – via Churchill – as a jump to the numinous feel good vibes of his peroration:

I believe that through history and accident this country has a unique spirit. The spirit of the NHS nurses and the entrepreneurs.

Triangulation again. Angels and unicorns. The theme of 'spirit' allowed him to return to the NHS, associate himself with the England football team, Emma Raducanu, the Olympics (and the Paralympics), and near as dammit to paraphrase Martin Luther King: 'to judge people not by where they come from but by their spirit'.

There was a tellingly mixed metaphor a little earlier, when he said: 'let me now come to the punchline of my sermon'. Most sermons don’t have punchlines. But those that do – political speeches that trade in lofty quasi-spiritual abstractions yet achieve their effects through jokes – can be very effective indeed.