Boris Johnson is not unfamiliar with taking the stage at Conservative Party conventions. In fact it is a man who has crashed and then crashed out of a succession of conventions – usually with a combination of faint flute and buffoonery – to the delight of the media generally expected, but whatever at the time. Has been the Prime Minister, for his concern.
But this year was clearly very different. Johnson, the infamous “Joker in the Pack” or “Clown Prince of Westminster” was addressing the party his first convention as Prime Minister.
Conference speeches are, of course, as much about political theater and performance as they are about content and details. The challenge for Johnson is that he is very well known for theater and performance, and he is often offbeat when it comes to content and details. Fate has so far defined his premiership in terms of crisis management – the first in relation to the UK’s handling of the Brexist angst, the second in relation to its handling of the COVID pandemic.
So far, he has been a highly “extraordinary” prime minister, serving in extremely extraordinary times. One of the biggest benefits of working in a crisis situation for any politician is that individual discretion and to some extent free-wheeling is overlooked. The same applies when it comes to the absence of a clear and coherent domestic vision. “We are in the middle of a crisis!” Can silence even the biggest critic.
But as soon as Johnson took the stage he was at the same time as powerful as he ever was and as vulnerable as he ever was. It is powerful in the sense that it commands a loyal majority in parliament, has just completed a position-emphasizing reshuffle, and is well ahead of the Labor Party in terms of current public voter-intent. But he is weak in the sense that now he is completely exposed. He must clearly demonstrate an ability to govern without the immediate chaos resulting from loud noises and crises.
It was a time of lack of convention and the crucial question was whether Johnson could convince a global audience that he could be a serious politician. The pre-event media smoke-signalling certainly tried to frame a very new brand of blonde ambition. Reports teased it as a speech in which Johnson would show himself as capable of leading a government with “the guts”, “to tackle problems that no government had previously dared to tackle”. .
The speech was not so much about a change of direction for the government as the Prime Minister’s attempt to convince his party and the public that he could be a capable leader. So how did he do it?
not good. The original essence of “Build Back Better” was lost in a sea of jokes and pranks. The United States Is Accepting British Beef: “Build Back Burgers!” Wildlife returning to the countryside: “Build Back Beaver!”
It was less of a coherent speech and more of a frantic diatribe delivered at such a pace that the audience was astonished at the spectacle unfolding before them. At one minute the prime minister was talking about the delight of the village of Stoke Poges, “his chestnut pulled out of a Tartarian pit”. He threw in references to fiber optic vermicelli, monkey glands, coagulated roundworms, royal jelly and intense quills. At one point he seemed to think that the direction the country was headed had something to do with the need to urinate in the bushes.
As for the “big idea”, there was certainly talk of leveling up. It was “the biggest project any government can undertake”. nothing more nothing less. His last major policy statement on the leveling agenda was dismissed by many commentators almost entirely for lack of material. This time around, there are so many concrete policies put in place within the protein project that it’s almost impossible to see what isn’t.
It is crime reduction, transportation, digital infrastructure, home ownership, skills. And above all it is capitalism. One advisor apparently suggested that leveling up could do with a dose of intellectual inspiration and suddenly Johnson used his conference speech to mention that he remembered a book by the 17th century economist Vilfredo Pareto. that appears to be relevant.
By the end of the speech, the audience appeared in silence, almost stunned. Is this what it looks like when the Prime Minister demonstrates his ability to govern? The smiling smile on the faces of his cabinet colleagues was arguably more evident than the speech. What was promised was the agenda for change – detailed, clear and precise. What was given was a noise of clichés and very cheesy jokes.
If it was the “showman to statesman test” Boris failed miserably. He ended with a flop that was almost deaf. He is more exposed than ever.