Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. That was the message of Boris Johnson’s speech this morning at a JCB factory in Staffordshire. He admitted this week that he regretted bottling his leadership bid in 2016. This time is his last chance to have a go at swiping the ultimate prize – the keys to Downing Street – a prize he’s coveted since he was a boy. Boris’s earliest known quotation is when, asked by his sister Rachel as a child what he wanted to be when he grew up, he said, “World King.”
He’s thinner and more smartly dressed than he’s been for years. That might have been influenced by the reported acquisition of his new 30-year-old girlfriend, Carrie Symonds. But clearly – as today’s speech shows – it’s also part of a major new leadership bid. The revelation, too, earlier this month, that Boris’s office has received donations from a company run by Lynton Crosby – the Wizard of Oz, who masterminded Boris’s mayoral victories – only goes to buttress the argument. His leadership bid is imminent.
His speech this morning rehearsed the Brexit plan he’s been pushing for weeks in his Daily Telegraph columns: yes, we can get a deal if we toughen up and square up to Brussels, by holding back half of the promised £39 billion settlement, rather than meekly accepting the thin gruel they offered in Theresa May’s plans. And then, if they don’t accept a Johnsonian deal, then, so Boris argues, it’s time to leave Europe without a deal.
Another sign that the speech is part of a leadership bid was how Boris used his Brexit arguments to leapfrog into arguments about his domestic policy as a future PM. The speech did a good deal of stealing Theresa May’s clothes – particularly her appeal to reduce inequality that she made on the steps of Downing Street when she first came to power.
As Boris put it, the Leave vote was “triggered by a feeling that in some way the people of this country have been drifting too far apart. If you look at the distribution of the Brexit vote, it is clear that people felt that gap in attainments and prospects and that they wanted something done. If we are to bring our nation together, that means investing in great public services and safer streets, better hospitals, better transport links and better housing.”
Boris appealed to small-state Conservatism, arguing that low tax was the key to increasing the overall tax take. He also moved rightwards on immigration. He’s always been pro-immigration in the past. In his speech, he did his old routine of saying that he himself was of immigrant stock:
“I’m not a nationalist if by that you mean I’m a xenophobe or someone who deprecates other countries and cultures – absolutely not, far from it, I’m called Boris. My ancestors come from all over the place, like I don’t know – a JCB in fact, sourced I believe from around the world.”
But he moved against immigration in arguing that the “huge expansion” in the gap between bosses and the average worker was increased by those bosses using unlimited migration to hold down wages.
Ever since he became foreign secretary in 2016, Boris has dialled down the jokes in his speech. And so he did this morning, rationing himself to a few, saying there would still be Mars Bars available in Britain after Brexit. He can never quite resist the desire for the approval that’s wrapped up in laughter at his jokes.
As Stuart Reid, his former deputy editor at The Spectator, once put it to me,
“Boris’s eyes give him away. There is almost always the hint of a smile there, or even of a guffaw. Though he sincerely wants power – because he must win – he knows that all political ambition is absurd. He knows, too, that politics is absurd. The result is that, when he makes a political pitch, there is always an element of satire in his words and manner. That would be disastrous in most men, but in good ol’ Boris it gets the punters in.”
So what next? This morning’s speech made me think of something a friend of Boris’s told me about meeting Boris just after he had met Roy Jenkins.
“I want to write an epic poem about Roy,” said Boris, “It’s amazing. He just wants everything – the fame, the power, the girls, the good life.”
The friend didn’t bother stating the obvious inference: that Boris could find those characteristics much closer to home. Boris has got the fame, the good life and the girl. Now he’s going for maximum power.
Harry Mount, who worked with Boris Johnson for five years at the Daily Telegraph, is the editor of The Wit and Wisdom of Boris Johnson (Bloomsbury)