In the weeks leading up to the conference, the Foreign Secretary has been accused of undermining party unity and the Prime Minister in particular. So heading into conference the narrative was already set. The Conservatives were not all singing from the same hymn sheet and the headline writers pulled out their well fingered phrase books to describe a party in disarray. Today Boris Johnson used his speech to try to draw a line under that, though some will consider that disingenuous given the briefings that have been taking place. Indeed, despite his words of support for Theresa May and his insistence the cabinet was united, his speech betrayed a note of ambition and a determination to set the agenda. Most cabinet ministers give dry speeches focusing on their area of policy. Not Boris, who invaded other ministerial portfolios with vigour, at one point even talking about housing policy.
People who want to lead parties tend to do that, and Boris wasn’t going to be put off from continuing this tradition. Despite a rambling and halting delivery, he covered a lot of ground and got a lot of laughs. Boris is Boris. He, like others, took aim at Jeremy Corbyn a lot. Look around conference speeches and the Labour leader is less ridiculed and more attacked these days. He’s a real threat now that needs to be beaten. All the better, some would say, to rigorously test and better Tory party policies to defeat Labour, but the common thread running through Boris’ speech seemed to be that he could do it better than Theresa. He made the case for a global Britain and capitalism. He talked up the possibilities beyond Brexit. And he did so with all the captivating energy that so wows the Tory faithful. His speech was not his best, but it was the best of conference, such is the high bar set for him and the low bar for others.
It’s clear now the Prime Minister’s speech on the final day of conference will be judged against her Foreign Secretary’s. Like some sort of political X Factor. In her speech we’ll see if she has done enough to keep the demons at bay, and the Conservative Party – and Brexit – on track.