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

Photo: Getty
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Vote Leave have won two referendums. Can they win a third?

The Remain campaign will hope that it is third-time unlucky for Vote Leave's tried-and-tested approach.

Vote Leave have launched a new campaign today, offering a £50m prize if you can guess the winner of every game at the Euros this summer. They’ve chosen the £50m figure as that is the sum that Vote Leave say the United Kingdom send to the European Union every day.

If you wanted to sum up Vote Leave’s approach to the In-Out referendum in a single gimmick, this is surely it, as it is deceitful – and effective. The £50m figure is a double deception – it’s well in excess of what Britain actually pays, and your chances of winning are so small they can only be viewed through an electron microscope. Saying that “the UK pays £50m to the EU” is like saying “I paid £10 for breakfast at Gregg’s this morning” – yes, I paid with a £10 note, but I got £8 back.  The true figure is closer to £26,000 a day.

But the depressing truth is that this sort of fact-free campaigning works – and has worked before. It’s the same strategy that Matthew Elliott, the head of Vote Leave, deployed to devastating effect, when he was head of the No to AV campaign, and that Dominic Cummings, head of strategy at Vote Leave, used when he was in charge of the anti-North East Assembly campaign: focus on costs, often highly-inflated ones, and repeat, over and over again.

This competition is a great vessel for that message, too, with the potential to reach anyone who has at least one Facebook friend with an interest in betting or football, i.e. everyone. And as my colleague Kirsty Styles revealed yesterday, this latest campaign is just one in a series of Internet-based, factually dubious campaigns and adverts being used by Vote Leave on the Internet.

The difficulty for the opponents of No2AV was, as one alumni of that campaign reflected recently, “how do you repudiate it without repeating it?”. A row over whether the United Kingdom sends £50m or £26,000 – itself £1,000 higher than the average British salary – helps the Leave campaign whichever way it ends up.

Neither Yes to Fairer Votes or supporters of a devolved assembly for the North East ever found a defence against the Elliott-Cummings approach. Time is running out for Britain Stronger In Europe to prevent them completing the hattrick. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.