Now the Boris backlash begins
PUBLISHED: 18:00 05 October 2017
Once the darling of Tory members Boris Johnson is playing a high-risk game, says RICHARD PORRITT.
For Theresa May the Conservative Party conference was a round robin apology.
At behind-closed-doors meetings, again and again she apologised for the Tories who lost seats or had big majorities almost wiped out in June’s general election. Although she wasn’t taking full responsibilty, the message was clear: “We messed up.”
And, believe it or not, the show of contrition from the Prime Minister seems to have worked. It is not that the Tory faithful have fallen back in love with their leader. If truth be told, the majority of them never really were.
Rather, the grassroots seem resigned to the fact that they can’t do anything to change their leader without ushering Jeremy Corbyn ever closer to Downing Street. The icy ruthlessness with which the Conservatives have traditionally dispatched leaders at the first sight of weakness is tempered by this calculation. For all Boris Johnson’s shameless posturing and provocation, the members are not biting.
Make no mistake, the Tory rank and file remain fascinated by Johnson. They love an eccentric and are drawn to someone with star qualities. And, love him or hate him, there is no denying that Johnson is the type of politician that cuts through the usual grey suits and policy yawns of Westminster.
Just a reminder that Boris Johnson is this country’s chief diplomat. Its. Chief. Diplomat.— David Schneider (@davidschneider) October 3, 2017
In Manchester this week he could not leave his hotel room without an eruption of flash bulbs and scrapping journalists hurling questions at him about his Hard Brexit stance and defiance of the official government line.
Members packed the hall to listen to his risibly-titled ‘Let the Lion Roar’ speech and it went down predictably well with them. May herself was not in the hall to hear Johnson but the speech itself was as on-message and tub-thumping as to be expected. He told conference: “Theresa May won. She won more votes than any party leader and took this party to its highest share of the vote in any election in the last 25 years and the whole country owes her a debt for her steadfastness in taking Britain forward as she will to a great Brexit deal. Based on that Florence speech on whose every syllable, I can tell you the whole cabinet is united.”
He closed his speech by saying: “We can win the future because we are the party that believes in this country and we believe in the potential of the British people. We have been privileged collectively to be placed in charge of this amazing country at a critical moment in our history. We are not the lion. We do not claim to be the lion.
“That role is played by the people of this country. But it is up to us now – in the traditional non-threatening, genial and self-deprecating way of the British – to let that lion roar.”
Such moments of optimism, however preposterous, go down well with the members, who still enjoy having their tummy tickled by Johnson. But once the applause has subsided, among the grassroots, a new narrative is building: Johnson is losing friends, and fast.
One Tory MP, who has backed Johnson in the past, said the foreign secretary was skating on thin ice. He admitted that although May was a broken leader Johnson needed to get on with the job and stop pitching for Number 10.
“At a time of great uncertainty about the future of our country, it is good that as foreign secretary he is speaking out in a positive way about the future opportunities for Britain outside the EU,” he said. “But the focus now needs to be about getting on with the job of government.”
Some Tories are willing to go further. One senior local government adviser did not pull any punches: “I like Boris. He has been good for the party and he adds a lot of colour to our politics. When he speaks people listen – that is a powerful thing.
“But right now I think he needs to shut the fuck up. He seems to be blinded by an obsession to lead the party. I know now he is seen as a big backer of Brexit and he is. But I really think that if he could have plotted a way to get to the top by backing us staying in the EU he would have.
“A lot of people I have spoken to at this conference have asked the same thing ‘does Boris care about the party or is he just determined to get to Number 10?’ My answer is that the games he has been playing in the last few weeks prove he is willing to put himself first.
“I’m no Theresa May fan either though. I think she’s been very poor and let’s face it, people don’t warm to her at all. But at least this week she spoke to us and made something approaching an apology. We have accepted that as a party and now want to get on with the job in hand.
“Brussels will continue to point to the fact that the cabinet is at war if Boris carries on like this. We cannot have public disagreements like the ones that have happened over the past few weeks.
“I would not rule out backing Boris in a leadership election. He has the type of pizzazz that not many politicians have – and that is worth an awful lot. But the last thing we need or want right now is a leadership election. He should fall into line and wait for his chance. At the moment he is losing a lot of friends.”
Johnson is still liked. But he is trying his party’s patience. Another source close to May told The New European Number 10 believed Johnson was manoeuvring to be the darling of Hard Brexit.
He knows that there has to be some concessions during the Brexit negotiations and he understands that these will annoy a great deal of people both in and outside the party come March 2019.
So why not wait until then to make his move? The truth is that Johnson fears he will be damaged along with the rest of the cabinet once the fallout of Brexit truly hits home. He needs to speak out now or he will be brushed aside by the next generation.
But in doing so he is playing a high risk game. The majority of Tories at this conference like Johnson – but they like being in power more. As well as his affable clown routine, Johnson has a reputation as a politically-destructive force. There are, it seems, still a few pragmatists left in the Tory party who seem to understand this.