Boris Johnson came to Tory conference to do two things. First, he had to win back the Tory grassroots from the floccinaucinihilipilificating ways of Jacob Rees-Mogg. Moggmentum rises and falls with the willingness of the faithful to indulge blithe theatrical Toryism at the expense of sense and good judgement. Second, he had to address his own reputation for flippancy and remind the party that he can do serious when he wants to.
Whether he succeeded in achieving the former, we will see but he made a good effort on the latter point. It fell to Boris to remind Conservatives of their own fatal conceit — that of assuming the arguments against socialism had been won. He told the auditorium:
‘We come up against a difficulty we must accept that when we talk about the 1970s we imagine people instantly understand about power cuts, the three day week, union bosses back in Downing Street, state-made-British rail sandwiches. We think they get the reference but unfortunately going back to the 1970s sounds to too many people like a massive joint revival concert by David Bowie, Led Zep and the Rolling Stones.
‘And that is because people can remember the Stones and Bowie and Led Zep, monuments of global culture but they have totally forgotten that those bands, along with so many other wealth creators were driven overseas by Labour’s 83 per cent tax rate.
‘They have forgotten that the problem used to be the brain drain, not people wanting to hear. They have forgotten that we had to fight and win battles of ideas and in a way that is entirely understandable – because our victory has been so comprehensive.’
Boris is the first government minister to capture the problem so vividly. No one under the age of 40 remembers the baneful drudgery of late British socialism. The Tories won’t convince millennials of this because millennials already know everything and are wise to the neoliberal propaganda spouted by ‘Centrist Dads’. But they are struggling to remind grown-ups too – voters who lived through the chaos – of the pitiful sight of political giants like Healey and Callaghan helpless against barrelling decline.
Yes, the Tories have to make capitalism work sufficiently well for a sufficient number of people (this is, after all, the point of the Tory Party) but they also have to make the moral argument against the centralising, top-down control believed in by Jeremy Corbyn and those around him.
The difficulty in all this is that the best argument against the Marxist jackboot John McDonnell longs to press down upon our necks is that freedom is better, freedom works, and freedom is what most of us want. Yet it is this government, in no small part thanks to Boris, that is taking away our freedoms — the freedom to travel across the EU uninhibited, to work seamlessly between London and Frankfurt, to trade tariff-free with neighbouring countries.
In the fight against Corbynism — which, yes, does matter more than Brexit — the Tories are choosing to wage a different battle. Brussels seems to affront them more than the idea of the IRA’s lustiest champion entering Number 10. It’s not just Boris who has to get serious.