Boris Johnson the joker wriggles out of straitjacket of statesmanship

New Conservative leader keeps his first speech gag free ... for a minute or so

The Conservative leadership announcement at Westminster's Queen Elizabeth II conference centre had all the trappings of a big event, including a warm-up video featuring the voices of every post-war Tory prime minister except (for some reason) Edward Heath.

But the announcement itself was curiously anticlimactic, with Boris Johnson’s margin of victory emphatic but not quite a landslide.

Johnson’s father, brother and sister sat towards the front of the auditorium, looking as if they were at a graduation ceremony for a wayward family member who had at last made it through his finals.

Johnson’s henchmen hovered around the hall, Jacob Rees-Mogg preening before journalists while Gavin Williamson whispered behind his hand to two fellow conspirators.

Johnson started by thanking his rival Jeremy Hunt for being "friendly, good natured and a font of excellent ideas" – and for losing so handsomely, perhaps. He also thanked Theresa May for her "extraordinary service to this party and to this country", a tribute that was met with silence in the hall.

The meat of Johnson’s speech began with an acknowledgement that no single party or person had a monopoly on wisdom. But he claimed that over the past 200 years, the Conservatives had shown that they had the best insights into human nature.

“And the best insights into how to manage the jostling sets of instincts in the human heart. And time and again it is to us that the people of this country have turned to get that balance right.

“Between the instincts to own your own house, your own home, to earn and spend your own money, to look after your own family. Good instincts, proper instincts, noble instincts. And the equally noble instinct to share. And to give everyone a fair chance in life. And to look after the poorest and the neediest and to build a great society,” he said.

Clownish persona

Johnson followed this assertion of his One Nation conservative credentials with a promise to reconcile the desire of Remainers to stay close to the EU with the Brexiteers’ ambition to cut loose. As he spoke, he stood in his characteristic Just William pose, hair tousled, head jutting forward and one hand planted in his trouser pocket.

His speech had been joke-free for the first minute or so, as if this ageing Prince Hal was finally shaking off his clownish persona as he prepared to become king. But suddenly the old Boris was back, bantering about the Financial Times and trying to whip up the crowd with some call and response.

“I read in my Financial Times this morning that there is no incoming leader, no incoming leader has ever faced such a set of daunting circumstances, it said. Well I look at you this morning and I ask myself, do you look daunted? Do you feel daunted?” he said.

He was met with silence. But now that Johnson had wriggled out of the straitjacket of statesmanship he was staying out of it and he ploughed on with a joke about his campaign slogan.

“I know that some wag has already pointed out that deliver, unite and defeat was not the perfect acronym for an election campaign, since unfortunately it spells dud– but they forgot the final ‘e’ my friends, ‘e’ for energise. And I say to all the doubters, dude, we are going to energise the country,” he said.

Suddenly he was speaking very fast, promising to deliver Brexit by October 31st "in a spirit of can-do", his pace quickening with each word until he reached a stringendo of babble.

“And like some slumbering giant, we are going to rise and ping off the guy ropes of self-doubt and negativity, with better education, better infrastructure, more police, fantastic full-fibre broadband sprouting in every household – we are going to unite this amazing country and we are going to take it forward,” he said.

By the time he finished speaking, a junior minister had embraced the spirit of can-do by resigning, a course many others are expected to follow before Johnson moves into Downing Street on Wednesday.