Boris's message: if I can run London, I can run Britain

The Mayor cleverly presented his record of governing London as an audition for one day running the country.

Boris Johnson didn’t need to be disloyal to David Cameron in his speech to the Conservative conference today and he wasn’t. He was merely very discourteous. Picking up reports that the Prime Minister had referred to him as a “blonde mop” he repaid the compliment in vigorous back-handed style. Cameron, he said, is a “broom” sweeping up Labour’s mess. George Osborne, he added, is a dustpan.

Johnson knows Cameron well enough to understand that nothing gets under his skin quite like lèse majesté. The informality, picking the Prime Minister out of the crowd, calling him “Dave” and wishing him a happy birthday with a wilful lack of deference will have been exquisitely irritating. The  over-chummy manner of delivery contained a deadly whiff of ridicule. The Mayor of London didn’t attack the Prime Minister on policy but nonetheless found a way to diminish his stature. 

That served the underlying purpose of Johnson’s speech which was to present himself not necessarily as a current rival to Cameron but as his equal nonetheless. The bulk of Boris’s speech was a celebration of his record in running London with an emphasis on economic vibrancy. He talked about creating a “platform for growth” – developing young people’s skills, finding them jobs, developing infrastructure, boosting exports and attracting investment. It was optimistic in tone and ambitious in scope, yet cleverly contained in the Mayor’s own geographical remit.

There can be little doubt what the objective was here. Boris is setting up his record of governing London as an audition for one day running the country. He was rehearsing a celebration of what can be achieved in the capital – both in terms of beating Labour and kick-starting the economy – as a blueprint for how Conservatives should feel more confident about what they can achieve as a national party. (Whether or not his record will ever justify such exuberance is an entirely different matter.)

He said nothing that sounded like an explicit threat to Downing Street and the Prime Minister’s aides affect to be pointedly relaxed about Boris’s ambitions. The Number 10 line is that Johnson will obviously serve his full term as Mayor, by which time the next election will already be decided. If he wants to do something after that – enter parliament or aspire to be leader – it is a matter for future conjecture that is, in political terms, so distant as to be unworthy of further comment.

Privately, Number 10 sources argue that if Cameron wins the next election, he stays on as leader. If he doesn’t he will almost certainly step down and then Boris might or might not engineer a way to make himself a candidate for the succession. Either way, a straight Boris v Dave contest will never happen. Ergo, Johnson is not a threat to Cameron.

It is a plausible argument but one that ignores the slow drip effect on party morale and Prime Ministerial authority of having, in the wings and periodically intruding on stage, an ebullient, popular Tory figurehead who pointedly refuses to genuflect before the leader. At the moment, Downing Street’s approach is to ignore Boris and laugh along through gritted teeth. Before long, Cameron will surely feel the need to find a more active strategy for cutting the London Mayor down to size.

Boris Johnson delivers his speech to the Conservative conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty
Show Hide image

Benn vs McDonnell: how Brexit has exposed the fight over Labour's party machine

In the wake of Brexit, should Labour MPs listen more closely to voters, or their own party members?

Two Labour MPs on primetime TV. Two prominent politicians ruling themselves out of a Labour leadership contest. But that was as far as the similarity went.

Hilary Benn was speaking hours after he resigned - or was sacked - from the Shadow Cabinet. He described Jeremy Corbyn as a "good and decent man" but not a leader.

Framing his overnight removal as a matter of conscience, Benn told the BBC's Andrew Marr: "I no longer have confidence in him [Corbyn] and I think the right thing to do would be for him to take that decision."

In Benn's view, diehard leftie pin ups do not go down well in the real world, or on the ballot papers of middle England. 

But while Benn may be drawing on a New Labour truism, this in turn rests on the assumption that voters matter more than the party members when it comes to winning elections.

That assumption was contested moments later by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

Dismissive of the personal appeal of Shadow Cabinet ministers - "we can replace them" - McDonnell's message was that Labour under Corbyn had rejuvenated its electoral machine.

Pointing to success in by-elections and the London mayoral election, McDonnell warned would-be rebels: "Who is sovereign in our party? The people who are soverign are the party members. 

"I'm saying respect the party members. And in that way we can hold together and win the next election."

Indeed, nearly a year on from Corbyn's surprise election to the Labour leadership, it is worth remembering he captured nearly 60% of the 400,000 votes cast. Momentum, the grassroots organisation formed in the wake of his success, now has more than 50 branches around the country.

Come the next election, it will be these grassroots members who will knock on doors, hand out leaflets and perhaps even threaten to deselect MPs.

The question for wavering Labour MPs will be whether what they trust more - their own connection with voters, or this potentially unbiddable party machine.