Boris Johnson has been making waves after his speech at a ConservativeHome fringe event on Tuesday at Conservative Party conference. His speech, perhaps one of the most anticipated at the conference, drew crowds that certain former Cabinet colleagues might have looked at jealously. From his resignation to his gallop through an Oxfordshire “field of wheat” (it was actually just dried grass), Johnson has sought to position himself as the alternative Prime Minster in waiting. This speech was, in the eyes of many, the “alternative leader’s speech”.
Did he succeed? In typical Johnson fashion, he has managed to dominate headlines at the conference despite not having a ministerial position to speak of. This is an impressive feat.
However, the question is – and always has been with Johnson whenever a serious post, such as foreign secretary, is thrown into the mix – will the public take him seriously? John Rentoul writing for the Independent perhaps best summarised how many see Johnson’s chaotic bid for power: “I can do jokes. Make me prime minister.”
Analysis of his speech offers little in the way of an answer to this question. Freed from the shackles of having to talk about a specific departmental strategy, Johnson was free to talk about pretty much anything. Some might argue it was his chance to prove his policy prowess and establish himself as a viable leader. Yet, his speech relied heavily on typical flowery Johnson rhetoric – for instance his reference to the Labour Party as a ‘weaselly cabal of superannuated Marxists and Hugo Chavez admiring anti-Semitism-condoning Kremlin apologists’.
Beyond the hyperbole though, there was little in the way of policy substance. He talked at some length about housing, championing giving millions more young people the chance to become ‘owner-occupiers’ and giving councils the incentives to build on brownfield sites. He was also clever to praise ‘the grafters and the grifters, the innovators, the entrepreneurs’ in defending the market economy whilst criticising Corbyn’s failure to do so.
Yet, despite urging the government ‘to deliver what the people voted for’, he doesn’t offer much in the way of a viable solution as to how to do that. He in fact devoted only one sentence to alternative policy suggestions to Chequers, amidst paragraphs about the problems with the current models on the table. That includes saying we simply need to ‘prepare much more vigorously for a WTO deal’ (also known as a ‘no-deal’ Brexit).
Boris Johnson has many supporters and many detractors. The challenge he must overcome, should he wish to become Conservative Party leader, is that of establishing in people the confidence that he can do the cold, hard work of the Prime Minister. Away from the cameras, the bombast and the rhetoric – the tough decisions of Government.
Rather than talk about this, Johnson used his speech to play up to the character of the “bumbling British baffoon”. While he certainly seemed comfortable in the fringe venue, at ease with his large crowd and enjoying the license for dramatic language afforded by his lack of government position, he did not offer the waiting crowds anything they didn’t already know.
Those who loved him will still love him. Those who don’t, will still not. Johnson’s challenge does not lie with the former, but rather with how to win over the latter. It’s not clear he achieved that.