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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle