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
Show Hide image

The Liberal Democrats are back - and the Tories should be worried

A Liberal revival could do Theresa May real damage in the south.

There's life in the Liberal Democrats yet. The Conservative majority in Witney has been slashed, with lawyer and nominative determinism case study Robert Courts elected, but with a much reduced majority.

It's down in both absolute terms, from 25,155 to 5,702, but it's never wise to worry too much about raw numbers in by-elections. The percentages tell us a lot more, and there's considerable cause for alarm in the Tory camp as far as they are concerned: the Conservative vote down from 60 per cent to 45 per cent.

(On a side note, I wouldn’t read much of anything into the fact that Labour slipped to third. It has never been a happy hunting ground for them and their vote was squeezed less by the Liberal Democrats than you’d perhaps expect.)

And what about those Liberal Democrats, eh? They've surged from fourth place to second, a 23.5 per cent increase in their vote, a 19.3 swing from Conservative to Liberal, the biggest towards that party in two decades.

One thing is clear: the "Liberal Democrat fightback" is not just a hashtag. The party has been doing particularly well in affluent Conservative areas that voted to stay in the European Union. (It's worth noting that one seat that very much fits that profile is Theresa May's own stomping ground of Maidenhead.)

It means that if, as looks likely, Zac Goldsmith triggers a by-election over Heathrow, the Liberal Democrats will consider themselves favourites if they can find a top-tier candidate with decent local connections. They also start with their by-election machine having done very well indeed out of what you might call its “open beta” in Witney. The county council elections next year, too, should be low hanging fruit for 

As Sam Coates reports in the Times this morning, there are growing calls from MPs and ministers that May should go to the country while the going's good, calls that will only be intensified by the going-over that the PM got in Brussels last night. And now, for marginal Conservatives in the south-west especially, it's just just the pressure points of the Brexit talks that should worry them - it's that with every day between now and the next election, the Liberal Democrats may have another day to get their feet back under the table.

This originally appeared in Morning Call, my daily guide to what's going on in politics and the papers. It's free, and you can subscribe here. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.