Boris Johnson’s speech to Conservative Party conference was disloyal to the Prime Minister in the sense that unlike Theresa May, the Foreign Secretary finds it easy to be upbeat and persuasive about the benefits of Conservatism. As this morning’s round of interviews showed, the Prime Minister’s definition of ‘upbeat’ is talking faster. Johnson, meanwhile, uses his command of the English language and confidence in public speaking to cheer up party members who were so desperate for something to take their minds off their current general misery that they were queuing in long lines to get into the conference hall.
But members already love Johnson. They know that even when he is giving a speech with a carefully vetted script that he sticks to, he’ll still produce jokes like ‘and it is thanks to the triumph of conservative values you are allowed to become a millionaire in Cambodia without being despatched for re-education by some Asiatic John McDonnell’. His challenge this afternoon wasn’t so much making members happy as calming his parliamentary colleagues down. They are so furious with his repeated interventions in the newspapers over the past few weeks that they often forget that it was Theresa May who landed them in the mess of a minority government.
So Boris included lines about how Theresa May ‘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,’ which might have sounded ridiculous given that record share of the vote still resulted in the Tories losing seats. But they and his claim that the whole Cabinet is united on the content of the Florence speech were essential for showing that the Foreign Secretary doesn’t want to lose the support of his colleagues. He doesn’t really want to be sacked: he was lonely enough on the backbenches when he was mayor, let alone as just a backbencher who lost his job for undermining the Prime Minister and making life easier for Jeremy Corbyn, who he attacked and ridiculed at length in his speech.
This doesn’t mean Boris is now loyal, having been chastened by the fury of his fellow MPs. He could quite easily swing between criticism and praise of the Prime Minister over the next few months, always taking enough back to make sacking him seem unreasonable. But if he does, he will continue to act as a lightning rod for backbench fury when from time to time it might be handy if Theresa May realised that she still needs to buck her ideas up too.
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