The Tories are ahead in the polls, the pandemic is easing, and the Prime Minister’s position is secure. And yet, for all the thronging crowds and warm white wine being guzzled at this year’s Conservative party conference, a strange gloom fills the air – and it has something to do with the dear leader, Boris Johnson.
Having been so ebullient for so long, and for many years the cheerleader for Tory optimism at every conference, Johnson seems weirdly subdued, even grumpy. Around the fringes of the conference, a question is being quietly asked: is something wrong with Boris?
The Prime Minister has been on a media blitz – but he’s looked and sounded tired. His interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday was notably tetchy. He bickered feebly with Nick Robinson on the Today programme this morning. Bizarrely he repeatedly quizzed Times Radio's Tom Newton Dunn about whether he has ever eaten a bacon sandwich and wouldn't be drawn on whether he would watch his wife Carrie speak at a fringe event this evening.
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) October 5, 2021
PM Boris Johnson "looking forward" to his wife Carrie arriving at Tory conferenceHe tells @BBCLauraK he doesn't know if he'll actually be able to go to the event she's speaking at later todayhttps://t.co/6gUsVzhVWu pic.twitter.com/clXPL6P3wO
Boris used to excel when sparring with challenging interviewers; now difficult questions seem to upset him. That’s why perhaps he tends to avoid sit-down sessions these days, preferring instead a short pool clip or to broadcast via his Twitter feed. But even in those little ‘Build back butter’, ‘build back bitter’, ‘build back batter’ promo videos, the Prime Minister appears a little embarrassed, as if he knows how glib he sounds.
For all the talk of ten more years of Tory rule, even the most ardent Johnson fans can’t exactly claim he is firing on all cylinders. So, what’s wrong? ‘He’s shattered,’ says one government insider – suggesting Johnson is simply tired. Those who have met with the Prime Minister at this week’s conference confirm that he seems flat.
MPs complain that he hasn’t been out and about as much they’d hoped – he was absent from the Sunday night 1922 reception. Rishi Sunak was the star guest. When Johnson did find time for a reception and addressed Scot Tories on Sunday night, attendees remarked that he appeared rather well lubricated and loose-lipped – sharing his joy that those present could finally ‘shake hands and exchange bodily fluids’. ‘Something's not right,’ said one old timer.
Johnson has reportedly given up booze in solidarity with his pregnant wife. Yet his Twitter account saw him sip a beer and munch on fish and chips. Has he abandoned his widely-briefed health kick?
Johnson being Johnson, he may turn perceptions on their head with a barnstorming conference speech tomorrow. That’s what he does best. But if he doesn’t, expect the comments to grow.