Boris Johnson indulges in make-believe with misfiring conference speech

PM’s jokes in an empty room fall flat as he tries to pretend recent months never happened

UK prime minister Boris Johnson has denied claims that his bout of Covid-19 robbed him of his "mojo", offering to "refute" critics of his athletic abilities in any way they want, such as arm-wrestling. Video: Reuters

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This time last year, the crowd at the Conservative party conference in Manchester were chanting Boris Johnson’s name before he came onstage to deliver a barnstorming leader’s speech. He might have expected an even more ecstatic reception this year after winning the party its biggest majority at Westminster for more than 30 years.

Instead, coronavirus meant that he gave his speech on Tuesday to an empty room where every joke fell flat and each rhetorical flourish was a reminder of the flatness of the format. His purpose was clear from the start when he declared that he had had “more than enough of this disease” and promised that life would be back to normal in time for next year’s conference.

He scorned as “seditious propaganda” reports – many of which come from his own MPs – that his own bout of coronavirus “has somehow robbed me of my mojo”. But he had nothing to say about why Britain suffered more deaths than any other European country during the first wave of the pandemic and why its test and trace system is so inadequate at the start of the second.

Brexit talks

If he had little beyond platitudes to offer on coronavirus, the prime minister had nothing at all to say about the other urgent issue facing his government – its trade talks with the European Union. Johnson last week revived his October 15th deadline for making progress on a deal but he has not yet shown any sign of making a negotiating move that would help to make an agreement possible.

Insofar as Tuesday’s speech contained policy announcements, most were reheated versions of existing commitments like expanding wind power or ideas floated without any detail, such as introducing a digital ID. After the speech, Downing Street was unable to flesh out any of the speech’s policy proposals.

Johnson’s words were aimed at the party faithful more than at the electorate at large and he tried to cheer them up with some traditional knockabout at Labour’s expense. Here too he misfired, portraying the opposition as unpatriotic, profligate and politically correct, as if he thought he was still up against Jeremy Corbyn rather than Keir Starmer.

It was as if the entire speech was an exercise in make-believe and nostalgia for the age of innocence a few months ago when Johnson was a popular prime minister facing a despised opponent. Wednesday’s polls show the two parties neck and neck with Starmer’s approval rating far ahead of Johnson’s. Tuesday’s flight of fantasy is unlikely to move the needle.

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