After losing his status as the Conservative leadership frontrunner to George Osborne, Boris Johnson needed a special speech to revive his fortunes – and he delivered. For an address pre-briefed as “serious” there were plenty of (good) gags. Labour’s “Ed Stone” was derided as the “heaviest suicide note in history”, Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters were described as having “vested interests” and “indeed interesting vests”. But this was also, by some distance, the most thoughtful and prime ministerial speech that the London mayor has given.
Framing himself as a “one nation Tory”, he declared that while he was “the only politician to speak out in favour of bankers”, the party could not “ignore the gulf in pay packets that yawns wider year by year”. Rather than mocking such rhetoric, Labour should welcome this ideological conversion and hold Johnson to his commitment.
In a coded warning to George Osborne to soften the coming cuts to tax credits, he called for the party to “protect the hardest working and lowest paid. The retail staff, the cleaners, who get up in the small hours or work through the night because they have dreams for what their families can achieve. The people without whom the London economy would simply collapse. The aspiring, striving, working people that Labour is leaving behind.” After Osborne poached “the living wage”, one of his signature causes, Johnson has put a new dividing line between himself and the Chancellor on social justice. And he couldn’t resist having some fun at his chief rival’s expense. “We will extend the northern line to Battersea – or the Wandsworth powerhouse, as it is probably now called in the Treasury,” he quipped. While his speech paid fulsome tribute to David Cameron (hailing his “extraordinary prime ministerial qualities”), the man he had positioned himself to succeed, there were no such plaudits for the Chancellor.
Addressing an irrevocably anti-EU audience (Tory activists back withdrawal by 2:1), Johson, like Theresa May before him, made immigration his red line. It was, he said, “up to this parliament and this country – not to Jean-Claude Juncker – to decide if too many people are coming here”. Should Cameron, as seems likely, fail to achieve an opt-out from free movement, the logical conclusion would be for Johnson to support Brexit.
Johnson’s humour, wit and passion were rewarded with the best reception of any speaker. Five months after the Tories’ election victory, it is continuity, represented by Osborne, that looks most attractive to activists. But today’s speech showed why, should the party enter troubled waters, the cry will surely go up to “send for Boris”.