Boris Johnson does know that he is becoming Prime Minister this week? Someone has told him that he should have something prepared? I only ask because he looked a little lost on hearing that he has won the leadership of the Tory party, which means he will shortly be driven to Number 10. A man who “hates being hemmed in,” in the words of a friend, is about to be locked inside a strange flat every evening above his new office, surrounded by security, where assailed by enemies he must during the next 100 days sort out Brexit or invite electoral oblivion.
Before that, the moment of victory. But ascending to the podium to thunderous applause today, Boris delivered a speech that can politely be described as underwhelming. More uncharitable readers will have regarded it as a downright bizarre shambles not befitting the gravity of the occasion. Mind you, I haven’t seen anyone, even his supporters, saying that it was much good. It offered an interesting clue on the way ahead, though. Paranoid Eurosceptics will have clocked that it contained, buried deep, a pointer to ways in which he might be about to back down from his “no deal or die” rhetoric once in office.
Boris won a landslide victory, beating Jeremy Hunt comfortably by securing 92,153 votes to his rival’s 46,656. Boris’s winning vote share was 66.4%. Amusingly, that’s lower than the 67.6% secured by David Cameron in the Tory leadership contest in 2005. Nonetheless, it is a thumping mandate from Tory members.
With the victory announced, and the fulfilment of Boris Johnson’s lifetime ambition at hand, many people, Tories and non-Tories, those in the hall and many more outside, wanted to hear how he would respond. The hall went quiet.
Boris began with customary round of gentle warbling, the lead in to the speech proper, surely? Had he prepared anything? If so it was rough and ready.
Thank you, Cheryl. Thank you, Charles. Thank you very much, Brandon, for a fantastic, well-organised campaign. I think it did a lot of credit, as Brandon has just said, to our party, to our values and to our ideals. But I want to begin by thanking my opponent, Jeremy. By common consent, an absolutely formidable campaigner and a great leader and a great politician.
Jeremy, in the course of 20 hustings… or hustings-style events – it was more than 3000 miles by the way, it’s about 7000 miles that we did criss-crossing the country. You’ve been friendly. You’ve been good natured. You’ve been a font of excellent ideas, all of which I propose to steal forthwith.
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Encouragingly, for those who hope Boris is a ruthless politician prepared to sell out his most excitable supporters, Boris was shameless enough to thank Theresa May for her work. His sense of humour is intact and he is prepared to play the party game. Elementary politics in action.
And above all, I want to thank our outgoing leader, Theresa May, for her extraordinary service to this party and to this country. It was a privilege to serve in her Cabinet and to see the passion and determination that she brought to the many causes that are her legacy, from equal pay for men and women to tackling the problems of mental health and racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. Thank you, Theresa. Thank you.
And I want to thank all of you, all of you here today, and obviously everybody in the Conservative party, for your hard work, for your campaigning, for your public spirit, and obviously for the extraordinary honour and privilege that you have just conferred on me.
And then to the guts of the speech, centred on a one nation appeal.
And I know that there will be people around the place, who will question the wisdom of your decision. And there may even be some people here who still wonder what quite what they have done. And I would just point out to you that of course nobody, no one party, no one person has a monopoly of wisdom. But if you look at the history of the last 200 years of this party’s existence, you will see that it is we Conservatives who have had the best insights, I think, into human nature and in the best insights in how to manage the jostling sets of instincts in the human heart. And time and again, it is to us that the people of this country have turned to get that balance right between the instincts to own your own house, your own home, to earn and spend your own money, to look after your own family.
Good instincts, proper instincts, noble instincts. And the equally noble instinct to share and to give everyone a fair chance in life. And to look after the poorest and the neediest. And to build a great society. And on the whole, in the last 200 years, it is we Conservatives who have understood best how to encourage those instincts to work together in harmony, to promote the good of the whole country.
And today, at this pivotal moment in our history, we again have to reconcile two sets of instincts, two noble sets of instincts. Between the deep desire for friendship and free trade and mutual support in security and defence between Britain and our European partners. And the simultaneous desire, equally deep and heartfelt for democratic self-government in this country.
There was the key section. The passage on reconciling two sets of instincts. Reconciliation requires… compromise. That looks suspiciously like him preparing his supporters for a compromise with the EU. Reconciling the desire for trade and self-government. Having introduced the idea, was he about to explain how this might be done? Nope. Instead he went straight into his optimism schtick.
And of course, there are some people who say that they’re irreconcilable. And it just can’t be done. And indeed, I read in my Financial Times this morning, devoted reader that I am. Seriously, it’s a great, great, great, great British, great British brand.
All very Boris, that. But it led into the strangest passage that will have disquieted many people hoping he knows what he is doing but harbouring grave doubts.
I read in my Financial Times this morning that there is no incoming leader, no incoming leader has ever faced such a daunting set of circumstances, it said. Well, I look at you this morning and I ask myself, do you look daunted? Do you feel daunted?
This was the audience’s cue to shout “No!” loudly. Instead, there was total silence in the hall. It was a remarkable moment of drama.
I don’t think you look remotely daunted to me. And I think that we know that we can do it and that the people of this country are trusting in us to do it. And we know that we will do it. And we know the mantra of the campaign that has just gone by in case you’ve forgotten it. You probably have. It is: Deliver Brexit. Unite the country and defeat Jeremy Corbyn. And that is what we’re going to do. We’re going to defeat Jeremy Corbyn.
Dude, what are you going on about?
I know, I know, some wag has already pointed out that deliver, unite and defeat was not the perfect acronym for an election campaign, since unfortunately it spells ‘dud’. But they forgot the final ‘E’ my friends. ‘E’ for energise. And I say to all the doubters: dude, we are going to energise the country. We’re going to get Brexit done. On October 31st, we are going to take advantage of all the opportunities that it will bring in a new spirit of can do.
How? By believing in ourselves, of course.
Boris’s believing in ourselves pitch is a circular process, round and round it goes. Encounter problem? Declare that we can get round it if we believe. In attempting manoeuvre, half way round encounter another problem. Answer? Declare we can get round this new problem though we are still trying to get round the first problem. In turning back to dodge new problem, encounter same original problem. Blame doubters for being insufficiently optimistic. Say we need to believe.
And in this fashion Boris concluded…
And we are once again going to believe in ourselves and what we can achieve. And like some slumbering giant, we are going to rise and ping off the guy ropes of self-doubt and negativity with better education, better infrastructure, more police, fantastic full-fibre broadband sprouting in every household. We are going to unite this amazing country and we are going to take it forward. I thank you all very much for the incredible honour that you’ve just done me. I will work flat out from now on with my team that I will build.
I hope in the next few days to repay your confidence. But in the meantime, the campaign is over and the work begins. Thank you all very much.
I do not mean any of this to sound unduly pessimistic or fatalistic. I hope it works, and that the drabness of the May era can be cast off. Perhaps a fiddle on the Withdrawal Agreement can be sold if some heavies are sent to beat up the ERG. But I’m just being realistic. That was an occasion requiring a decent speech and he didn’t have one. The best I can say is: I hope Boris is saving the proper speech for tomorrow.