It was the launch event everyone was waiting for. After weeks of keeping a low profile – a submarine campaign according to critics – with just one newspaper interview, the leadership frontrunner Boris Johnson emerged this morning to officially kickstart his campaign. However, rather than opt for a circus tent, waffle freebies and thinly-veiled attacks at colleagues like some of his rivals, Johnson’s event at Carlton Gardens proved rather tame.
The former mayor of London was introduced by a new Cabinet supporter – Geoffrey Cox. Part of a carefully choreographed strategy to show Johnson has support from across the party, Cox took to the lectern (as he did for Theresa May at the last party conference) to explain why he thought Johnson was the best person to lead the country. Given that one rival leadership campaign this week believed Cox might endorse them, it was a smart move.
However, other than Cox’s endorsement there was little in the way of surprises at the event. The audience – made up of a mix of hacks and MPs backing Johnson – reflected the campaign team’s desire to show the broad spectrum from which Johnson had attracted support. Brexiteers including Jacob Rees-Mogg, Bill Cash, Bernard Jenkin and Mark Francois sat alongside the likes of James Brokenshire, Lucy Frazer, Liz Truss and Therese Coffey. The crowd loudly cheered Johnson as he emerged to speak.
As for the substance of the speech there was little that he hadn’t said before. Johnson used the platform to reinforce his promise to take the UK out of the EU by the end of October – deal or no deal. He insisted that he did not see a no deal Brexit as the ideal scenario or the likely one – but preparing for it was both responsible and necessary. In his strongest comments, Johnson warned that MPs would face ‘mortal retribution’ were they to block Brexit – suggesting they would be wiped out at the next election:
‘Now is the time to unite this country and unite this society, and we cannot begin that task until we have delivered on the primary request of the people; the one big thing they have asked us to do. After three years and two missed deadlines, we must leave the EU on October 31.
We simply will not get a result if we give the slightest hint that we want to go on kicking the can down the road with yet more delay. Delay means defeat. Delay means Corbyn. Kick the can and we kick the bucket.
With every week and month that goes by in which we fail to deliver on our promise I am afraid we will further alienate not just our natural supporters but anyone who believes that politicians should deliver on their promises.’
Johnson tried to shift the conversation too to domestic issues – talking about his plans to govern as a one nation Conservative. He was at pains to try and prove his electability – saying he had campaigned in nearly every seat in the country and believed he could do for the country what he had done for London as mayor: bring an end to division.
However, a reminder of Johnson’s divisive reputation was found almost as soon as he began speaking. A heckler stood outside the building and shouted ‘bollocks to Boris’ through a megaphone – with the noise reaching the room. Meanwhile, in the Q&A after the speech, Johnson supporters – in the form of several members of the European Research Group of backbench MPs – booed a hack for asking Johnson about his record as a politician and whether people were right not to trust him. This was a misstep and a reminder that the Johnson campaign can receive negative publicity as a result of the supporters they have signed up – even if those figures don’t have official roles.
As for the questions, Johnson took six questions from the press and got through it pretty much unscathed. In response to questions from the BBC and Sky News, he insisted that he was a trustworthy politician despite what his critics might say. He told the Financial Times that rather than ‘f—‘ business he as prime minister would support business. Johnson ducked a question from the Daily Mail on whether he had ever taken cocaine – telling the hack that he is instead wanted to talk about what most people were interested in. When asked by the Guardian‘s Heather Stewart whether he would promise to resign if he failed to deliver Brexit at the end of October, Johnson again failed to give a straight answer and instead spoke about why he was optimistic about negotiating a new deal on time.
So, what were the main take aways? No-one in the room learnt much that they didn’t already know. On leaving, one MP who is backing Johnson told me that if they had any complaint it’s that the whole thing was a little ‘dull’. However, they went on to say that they would take dull over catastrophe any day of the week. And this touches on the Johnson campaign strategy. Johnson’s launch today was not focussed on proving he was a dynamic politician who could set the news agenda with a colourful phrase. They sense that voters – and the Tory grassroots – already know that. What they are at pains to prove to MPs is that despite comments from Johnson’s leadership rivals, he is a serious candidate who can lead in serious times. This means that although Johnson’s launch was a little less exciting than some had hoped, by campaign standards it can be classed as a relative success. Johnson is the frontrunner and that means it’s his to lose. As one supporter puts it: ‘We just need to hold the line until next week.’