The lion retreats: Boris Johnson plays it safe in underwhelming speech

The Foreign Secretary made no mention of his Brexit demands and heaped praise on Theresa May. 

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After marching his troops to the top of the hill, Boris Johnson has marched them down again. The Foreign Secretary's Conservative conference speech was shorn of any reference to his four Brexit "red lines" or to "£350m a week for the NHS" (mocked by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon in the preceding address). Today, Johnson came to praise Theresa May, not bury her. 

After the vintage infighting of recent weeks, he absurdly praised the Prime Minister's Florence speech, "on whose every syllable, I can tell you the whole cabinet is united." Johnson has rightly calculated that now, midway through the Brexit negotiations, is not the time to strike. 

His speech, in typical fashion, roamed widely across the political terrain (being absent of any coherent foreign policy vision) but there were no daring moments, nothing to disturb Theresa May's pre-speech sleep. 

Johnson's recent machinations have provoked fury on all wings of the Conservative Party ("everybody is pissed off with Boris," one minister told me). But among Tory members, after a recent slump, his stock has risen. The hall, which was busier than for any other speaker, relished his jibes at Jeremy Corbyn ("I say he's Caracas", "zombie fingers straining for the levers of power") and his blind Brexiteer optimism ("It is time to stop treating the referendum result as though it were a plague of boils or a murrain on our cattle or an inexplicable abberation by 17.4m people. It is time to be bold, and to seize the opportunities and there is no country better placed than Britain.") 

After dropping his speech's working title "Let the Lion Roar" for the banal "Winning the Future", Johnson resurrected the theme for his peroration. "We are not the lion. We do not claim to be the lion," he declared. "That role is played by the people of this country. But it is up to us now – in the traditional non-threatening, genial and self-deprecating way of the British – to let that lion roar." 

Johnson received his ususal standing ovation. Though Jacob Rees-Mogg and Ruth Davidson are vying for the title, the Foreign Secretary remains the closest to a Heseltine-esque conference darling. Johnson's histrionic rhetoric, however, could not disguise an absence of vision and ideas. His jokes landed better than those of his colleagues (a low bar), but there was nothing here to reanimate a politically and intellectually exhausted party. 

After knowingly raising expectations, Johnson fell well below them. Rather than the Winston Churchill du jour, he risks becoming the David Miliband of the Conservative Party: willing to wound and yet afraid to strike. Today, the lion didn't roar – it retreated. 

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.