Boris Johnson and Theresa May both fancy a pop at the Tory leadership and both gave speeches today that showed they were keen. That much is so well-known that it is a little tiring to analyse either speech simply in those terms (though it’s worth noting that Boris supporters have been very keen indeed to tell us that this was a ‘grown-up, loyal speech that shows he has a track record of delivery. Boris has a vision that is optimistic’).
Both did a good job of rallying the troops in the conference hall, although in quiet different ways. May was sober but passionate about the threat posed to Britain by Isis, warning that the terror group could acquire nuclear weapons. She quoted the Koran on stage to demonstrate that Isis was twisting the sacred texts it claims to be fighting for. And she talked with sincerity about the need for British values. She attacked the Liberal Democrats for ‘outrageous irresponsibility’ in blocking the Communications Data Bill and pledged to introduce it if the Tories were in power after 2015. It was a fine speech, sitting alongside her ferocious address to the Police Federation on what is still quite a thinly-stocked shelf of excellent speeches by the Home Secretary.
After that, Boris had a pretty tough task. The hall had been lapping up a serious, policy-rich speech from May. Would his buffoon act and ornate language work or flop? The Mayor did manage to rouse them with brilliant jokes about those watching having ‘permission to purr’ (in a dig to the Prime Minister, who was picked up by the cameras a few minutes later pulling that special face that he reserves for giving the impression that he really is enjoying another crowd-pleasing speech by the Mayor), about the fact that ‘bus crime is down… which is obviously not crime committed by buses’ and about Miliband’s forgotten deficit lines, where ‘the baggage handlers in his memory went on strike – as they would under a Labour government – and refused to load the word deficit onto the conveyor belt of his tongue’.
Naturally, members loved it, but in spite of what his unofficial spinners say, this speech was lacking. It was not as heavy-hitting as the Home Secretary’s, and neither would it be possible for it to be so given the difference between their portfolios. But Boris also failed to develop passages that were really interesting and original, rather than simply packed with jokes.
‘For 200 years the Tory Party has been a party that believes in social justice. In managing and mitigating the worst effects of the free market. But we believe that the best answer to inequality is opportunity.
‘We believe in encouraging success not punishing it. We believe in wealth creation not constant levelling down. We believe that for all its defects the free market is the best means we have yet found for satisfying the wants of humanity.
‘That’s why all our policies are aimed at helping people into work -creating 250,000 apprenticeships as we have done in London, and now 3m across the country.
‘And when people work hard, get up early, do the 24/7 jobs that make London the capital of the world, we believe that they should be decently paid. And that is why I am so proud of what we have done with the London Living Wage, now paid by 408 firms – a 1,200 per cent increase on what Labour ever did – putting £100m into the pockets of the poorest families in London. Not by compulsion, not by legislation, not by coercion, not by negotiation with Len McCluskey. But by simply showing companies that it is the right thing to do not just for their employees, but for themselves – because believe me that investment shows up in the bottom line, in lower HR bills, in less absenteeism, in higher productivity and loyalty and commitment.
‘And that is the Tory approach. Cutting taxes wherever we can as we have in London – cutting council tax by 20 per cent. Governing economically and responsibly to let people on low incomes keep more of the money they earn. Reducing the burdens on the businesses that employ the people that create the wealth we need.’
This passage was as good an answer on why the Conservatives in the hall were Conservatives as you’re likely to get this week. It’s a shame the Mayor didn’t expand this values passage in his speech as one of the things he seems to be better at doing is to give voters a reason to feel good about backing the Tories and members a reason not to despair when defections continue (albeit at a rather less high-profile level).
Boris’s role in the next few months – as well as getting elected – is to fire up the troops and cut across to voters in the way he did today. His was an excellent feel-good speech to a conference that started badly but is surprisingly more optimistic than many could have predicted. But he didn’t reveal very much about himself. May showed that she wasn’t just a heavy hitter on the political scene, but that she can, when she wants something, be a great communicator who gets the troops going too.
P.S. The Lib Dems have said they ‘utterly reject the allegation that the blockage of the Communications Data Bill has put lives at risk’ and they will ‘continue to oppose the Tories’ obsessive intrusion into people’s lives’.