Boris Johnson: will he be the chosen one?

Analysis: Johnson can still excite the Conservative base, but is that enough?

Boris Johnson addresses delegates at  the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Toby Melville/ Reuters

Boris Johnson addresses delegates at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham. Photograph: Toby Melville/ Reuters

 

The queues to hear Boris Johnson at the Conservative conference on Tuesday, curling around the broad, carpeted corridors of the International Convention Centre, were such that organisers had to open another tier of seating in the hall. In the end, more than 1,400 party activists made it inside, some after queuing for three hours and many wearing “Chuck Chequers” badges.

Johnson began with a few warm-up jokes, including a line about Jean-Claude Juncker’s drinking and one about the security breach that made MPs’ mobile phone numbers available to anyone who signed up to the conference app.

“I know this conference is going to be a staggering success because just in the last couple of days about a dozen far left Momentum activists have kindly pledged their loyalty by ringing my private mobile phone,” he said.

Soon he was into his stride, baiting Labour as “a Tony Benn tribute act” and warning Conservatives against attempting to compete on Jeremy Corbyn’s turf. Taking a swift tour through the domestic policy agenda, he settled a few scores, recapping at lightning speed his achievements as London mayor and calling for the reintroduction of stop and search by police, which Theresa May abolished as home secretary.

Visit to Peru

He approached Brexit by remarking that he was the first British foreign secretary to visit Peru for 52 years and recounting a much-loved anecdote about a notoriously bibulous politician.

“As I stood in some glittering embassy soiree in Lima I remembered that one of my Labour predecessors, Lord George Brown, had been at a similar event in the same place and allegedly made a pass at a creature clad in gorgeous scarlet who turned out to be the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima,” he said.

Johnson won applause for his denunciations of the Chequers plan for Brexit but his biggest ovation came when he took a swipe at a policy favoured by Michael Gove, who backed him for the party leadership in 2016 before deciding to go for the crown himself instead.

“Do not believe that we can somehow get it wrong now and fix it later – get out properly next year, or the year after. Total fantasy. The opposite will happen,” he said.

If Johnson wanted to prove he can still excite the Conservative base, he succeeded. But if he wants to become leader, he must emerge as one of two candidates chosen by MPs to go before the party membership. At the foot of the vast throng that came to listen sat a thin line of MPs, fewer than two dozen, and Johnson can’t be sure of the support of all of them.

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