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The hall was packed for Boris Johnson. For almost a decade this has been a feature of Tory conferences because his oratory and jokes make the faithful smile. And this year – more than any since the dismal depths of the IDS years in the early 2000s – the Conservatives need cheering up because of the general election debacle. Despite winning two million more votes than in 2015 they contrived with the worst campaign in living memory to let Jeremy Corbyn win 40% of the vote.
How did Boris do in Manchester? After weeks of him causing trouble on the Brexit front, or holding the feet of the gloomster Remainers in the cabinet trying to water down Brexit, depending on your view, this was a bit of a greatest hits package that merits a five out of ten.
It was not one of his finest performances and speaking as a former comment editor of the Daily Telegraph, many years ago, I judge it to have been like one of his less successful columns, a meandering shaggy dog story worn thin through repetition. Nonetheless, he still has star power and the audience rose and roared at the end, although it subsided quickly.
There is much push back from friends of Boris against the idea that he is past his peak and somehow not destined to be the next leader of the Tory party. They are extremely defensive. It would be insane, one supportive hack told me, for the Tory parliamentary party to block him in a leadership contest. Candidates are whittled down to a final two by MPs and then the members vote.
“They loved the speech, he did well,” said one supporter. “The members know Boris has the X factor,” another pro-Boris MP told me. I’m not sure that is even true in the way it used to be, and it is doubtful whether their next leader can be someone who has been at it for so long now, with more than a decade in the front-line as a famous figure, or someone identified with the EU referendum.
The Tories need a completely new face next, and a new generation of ministers from among their promising next generation MPs. I’ve never had a round of applause speaking on the fringe before, but that was the novel result when I said at a Resolution event this week that half the cabinet needs to be cleared out immediately.
There is also considerable fury among Tory MPs at the behaviour of Boris in recent weeks. The vast majority of MPs are not even at conference but phone them or text them and the phone-line fizzes. Words that fly in include “finished,” “show pony,” “disloyal f***er” and “done.”
Boris is a big beast and he has his defenders. But his game-playing has riled many of his Tory colleagues. The Tory tribe can laugh at jokes and then still be a ruthless lot. At this rate the MPs will ensure that he gets nowhere near the final vote or Number 10.