The Conservative MP Julian Critchley once remarked that Michael Heseltine knew exactly “how to find the clitoris of the Tory party”. Boris Johnson, who likes to tell ministers that he is a “Brexity Hezza”, has a similar effect upon the Conservative Party faithful, albeit in a less sophisticated way than Heseltine.
Although Conservative MPs turned to Johnson because of his credibility on an issue where he was at one with the Tory grassroots – Brexit – part of Johnson’s political success is his ability to take the party with him when he is at odds with its preferred orthodoxies and previous approaches. And that dynamic played out in his Conservative conference speech today (6 October).
Delegates responded positively, but without great enthusiasm, to Johnson’s advocacy for tax rises. But they loved his attack on the “corduroy cosmonaut communist” Jeremy Corbyn, and on Keir Starmer who – Johnson declared – if he’d advised Christopher Columbus would only have got as far as Tenerife. The biggest spontaneous round of applause was for Johnson’s argument that capitalism was responsible for the success of the UK and the world’s Covid-19 vaccine programme – a cheer that Johnson had clearly not expected as he had begun to clear his throat for the next line in the speech. Lines where Johnson strayed rhetorically into Labour territory would, from any other Conservative politician, have been met with silence, and even Johnson was only able to attract rather more muted applause.
It’s become a cliché to talk about Johnson’s ability to win over parts of the country where other Conservatives struggle, and in many ways his 2019 electoral coalition resembles the one he built in London, which took significant strides into white working class areas in addition to retaining the bedrock of Tory support in the capital – suburban homeowners, high-paid professionals and motorists – but another underrated part of his political strength is his ability to get the Tory party to sing along to his tune.
Nonetheless, we might be witnessing the high watermark of “Johnsonism”. What wasn’t in the speech was as significant as what was. We now have a pretty clear idea of what Johnson means by “levelling up”: it’s equality of opportunity and a diffusion of high-quality jobs and career opportunities outside London and England’s other great cities. But we are far from having an idea of what levers Johnson will pull to deliver that, and how much money he is going to spend on it and where.
The reason for that, of course, is that Downing Street and the other spending departments are on course for an almighty battle with the Treasury over government expenditure at this month’s Spending Review, and that Chancellor Rishi Sunak is reluctant to reduce his freedom of manoeuvre ahead of those internal battles. The big political bet reflected in Johnson’s speech is that, having filled most of the big departments with Johnson loyalists who he trusts to deliver on his agenda, he will, by the time of the next general election, be able to point to real signs of progress and re-election.
Will he? Maybe. His government might equally come to be defined by the absence of announcements in this speech. The Tory grassroots’ lack of affection for the Prime Minister’s programme might mean that “Johnsonism” does not outlive its creator.