Not so much a conference speech, more an extended Daily Telegraph column. One knocked off in a hurry at the last minute. This was politics as light entertainment, with any collision with the real world entirely accidental. Plenty of jokes – one or two even moderately good ones – and soundbites for the TV, but nothing of any substance. Just another day like any other in the life of Boris Johnson.
The lights went out and Spandau Ballet played through the PA system. “You’re indestructible, always believing you’re gold” is the narcissist’s theme tune. No wonder Boris loves it. He is the man who doesn’t have to try too hard. Even when the country feels like it is falling apart around him, in his universe he can reconfigure it into his own image as a roaring success. All you need is to believe. If you don’t like the world you’re in – and 4 million households were waking up to a £20 a week cut in universal credit – then it’s probably your own fault.
Moments later, the cabinet trooped in to the new hall – expanded to twice the size both to accommodate Boris’s ego and to remind his party he is its Supreme Leader – to polite applause. Still, it was more than many of them had received from their own 10-minute slots in the Tiny Tent earlier in the week. Then a short video of Boris being nice and interacting with grateful Little People before the prime minister took the stage.
Johnson looked up and smiled. The conference centre was his kingdom. His bubble. He could say what he liked and no one would care. The audience just wanted to be embraced into his realm. To experience his vision of an England where there were no queues for petrol, no food and labour shortages, no inflation and no tax rises. Those things were all constructs of a media and Labour party obsessed with talking the country down.
And what a world it was. First off, Johnson all but declared that Covid was over. It had been a difficult 18 months – made trickier for everyone by Labour’s insistence on treating it as a major public health issue – but now it was pretty much business as usual. Thanks to the vaccine that he personally had developed, the UK was way ahead of other countries in getting back to normal.
Then there was the problem of social care, which he had solved merely by saying he had a plan for dealing with it. Yes, it might involve higher taxes – almost all of which would go to the NHS rather than on social care – but he was hopeful things could be sorted just by eliminating some red tape. It was that easy.
The gags came thick and fast. Funny stories in funny voices with even some Franglais thrown in. The old ones are the old ones. Diversionary tactics as Boris jumped from subject to subject, never allowing himself to get side-tracked into detail in case anyone noticed the total lack of any substance or policy. He could impose his reality merely through the force of will. Because his narrative was more attractive, more comedic and, above all, less painful than anyone else’s.
He was creating a high-wage, low-tax economy. Like many of his colleagues he is oblivious to many people taking a wage cut after inflation and that his government has raised taxation to its highest level since the 1940s.
And he was going to get levelling up done. Whatever that was. It has had so many meaningless definitions over the past few days at Tory conference that it’s been hard to keep up. Today it meant that people in Stoke Poges could relax about any outsiders trying to move in to their village because there would be plenty of houses and jobs for them in the north.
Above all, Boris was keen to make sure that no reality should intrude on his world vision. Labour was cast as the party of Islington when it was he who actually used to live there before he got kicked out of the family home. Selling beef to the USA was the crème de la crème of trade deals. Build back burger. Groan. The Kabul airlift had been a magnificent triumph.
Weirdly, he fancies himself as a historian, but seems totally unaware that one of the purposes of history is to re-interrogate the past. So there was the obligatory clickbait of a war on woke. We can’t have people editing Wikipedia entries, he said. Conveniently forgetting he had failed to acknowledge he has six children until recently.
The longer he went on, the more rambling and lazy the speech became. It lasted a thankfully brief 45 minutes but it wasn’t even immediately clear that he had actually ended as he seemed to finish mid-sentence. No one cared. The audience cheered, none more so than the cabinet – each of whom was desperate not to be seen to be the first one to stop clapping.
It had been classic, complacent Boris. He hadn’t really tried because he hadn’t needed to. He feels impregnable. The Tories had loved him because they always do. He makes them feel good about themselves. Comfort binge-eating on a diet of nostalgia and wishful thinking. And besides – if nothing else – the conference had been a stark reminder that they weren’t exactly spoiled for choice in the search for alternative prime ministers.
But it had also been a speech that had ignored the lived experience of most people in the country. Queues, shortages, feeling broke. A Brexit that wasn’t really turning out as promised. The faithful might have knelt down to worship, but actually his speech had been an act of contempt. Both to them and everyone else. The speech may have bought Boris a bit of breathing space but not much else. Sooner or later something’s got to give. And then the shit will hit the fan.