This was not just the best speech that Boris Johnson has given since becoming Prime Minister, it’s the first proper weapons-grade speech that he has given since running for the job. It showcased his gift of communication, his ability to mobilise language to uplift, enthuse and motivate. To convey a sense of cheerful mission – even when it comes to Brexit and correct the tone: seek to replace the acrimony with optimism. To say that we love Europe but after 45 years of constitutional change we need a new relationship with it. It showed use of comic metaphor.
‘If parliament were a laptop, the screen would be showing the pizza wheel of doom… if parliament were a reality TV show then the whole lot of us would have been voted out of the jungle by now.’
This teasing is so much more effective than excoriation and is a perfect antidote to the deranged, angry tone of his critics. He speaks as if these trip off his tongue – but if they did, he’d deliver speeches like this more often. It takes time to think of and hone these metaphors and like all good comics he repeats his material once it is created. It’s a genre of political speech, and I’m not sure that anyone does it better.
This is his natural tone, this is him. In recent weeks, it has seemed as if Boris had been persuaded to play the role of a standard Prime Minister. This was always going to fail because he is no such thing. His parliamentary performances have not fizzed. He was a flop as Foreign Secretary because didn’t manage to get going, and didn’t do enough speeches like this one.
Such performances can be disparaged as a stand-up comedy act, but unlike most political speeches, people listen to them. The arguments are more likely sink in because they’re memorable. His speech today offered not just laughs but fundamental points about why he’s in politics, and why people should vote Tory:
‘If you ask me how we are going to grow the UK economy, I will tell you that it is by raising the productivity of the whole of the UK. Not with socialism, not with deranged and ruinous plans borrowed from the playbook of Bolivarian revolutionary Venezuela. But by creating the economic platform for dynamic free market capitalism.
Yes, you heard it right: capitalism. And when did you last hear a Tory leader talk about capitalism? We are the party of the NHS precisely because we are the party of capitalism not because we shun it, or despise it and we understand the vital symmetry at the heart of the modern British economy between a dynamic enterprise culture and great public services.’
There were no policy announcements, no news, but it was still better than any speech David Cameron delivered at any conference. It was unrecognisable from Theresa May’s on-stage implosion. It was a reminder of why he was elected leader, and a reminder of how his party badly needs him to perform on the election trail.
Some had wondered if the stresses of the job had beaten this vibe out of him. He showed us today that the magic is there. If he can bring himself to unbottle it more regularly, not just at a set-piece conference speech but using it to “lightly pepper” his governing style, then the Tories have every reason to look forward to the next general election.