What was the point of Boris Johnson’s speech? It didn’t contain any announcements for Tory activists to clutch as they left the hall. Details of his proposals to resolve the Brexit stand-off were missing, and will instead be unveiled to parliament later today. It even finished on a strangely low-energy note, rather as if Johnson had ended up emulating the electric cars he had been praising by running out of battery sooner than expected. Yes, there were jokes, but many of them, particularly his fish-themed mocking of Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, have turned up in conference speeches of years gone by. So why bother?
Before he appeared to run out of energy, Johnson was giving a tub-thumping election rally speech, which the members loved. He wasn’t in the middle of trying to reposition the Conservative party as part of the sort of lengthy project that a leader can do when in the middle of an electoral cycle. He hopes that the current electoral cycle is nearly over. Instead, the policies were all there, announced throughout conference, and he was instead reinforcing them through repetition, just in case members hadn’t paid attention the first time. We now know what the Tory priorities are for the forthcoming election: law and order with a particular focus on police numbers and county lines drugs gangs; loving the NHS; buses and exciting infrastructure. It’s clear. It’s something the party can now work on in individual constituencies.
He also made a vivid case for that election, saying: ‘If parliament were a laptop, then the screen would be showing the pizza wheel of doom. If parliament were a school, Ofsted would be shutting it down. If parliament were a reality TV show the whole lot of us would have been voted out of the jungle by now. But at least we could have watched the speaker being forced to eat a kangaroo testicle.’ This will come in handy if and when he ends up having to accept that there is going to be an extension to the Brexit deadline.
And that deadline presents another reason for not bothering to announce anything new in this speech: it will swiftly be overshadowed. Even a big domestic policy announcement wouldn’t get much attention given the focus has already switched to whether Brussels is going to go anywhere near what Johnson is proposing, and if not, who is going to get the blame for what happens next.