Johnson knows there is more ground to give

Tories leave party conference in decent heart but knowing their fate lies in the hands of the EU

British prime minister Boris Johnson leaves the stage with his partner Carrie Symonds as he is congratulated by his father Stanley Johnson after delivering his speech during the Conservative Party conference. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/EPA

If Boris Johnson’s first speech to the Conservative party conference as party leader seemed instantly unmemorable it may because even the prime minister’s mind was elsewhere. As all those in the Manchester conference centre knew, the events which will shape his premiership are taking place in other venues. To steal a line from Hamilton the musical: this was not the room where it happens.

It was, as one would expect from such an accomplished public speaker, a good performance. The jokes landed, the delivery was sharp and he seemed entirely at ease with his party. He is the itch the Tories have been waiting to scratch and they enjoyed their moment.

He responded with a warmth that has been distinctly missing from the rather caged, curbed and growling premier of the past month. Strikingly, his words were entirely devoid of Brussels bashing – a reflection of the fact that his immediate political fate lies largely in the hands of the EU.

He offered a useful dose of inclusivity that has been so lacking form the Conservatives in recent weeks. At several points, Mr Johnson even went out of his way to offer olive branches to critics. He acknowledged "the patriotism of both" sides of the Brexit debate – a marked change of tone from some in his party. This was a reminder of the pre-Brexit Boris Johnson. It remains to be seen if he can sustain this tone if he does not secure a deal and the anticipated election turns into a battle for Brexit.


He even found kind words for London while imploring members to remember that the rest of the country did not share its good fortune. For Johnson knows where his electoral fortunes lie: not in the capital but in constituencies across the West and East Midlands, in Yorkshire and Wales. His primary message was to those regions. Talk of infrastructure projects is invariably Mr Johnson looking to voters in the north.

He defended capitalism as the prerequisite of a generous welfare state, reminding Tories not to fear their core values. But he also stuck to the key themes for his target voters, of investing if hospitals and fighting crime.

The rest was airy, aspirational stuff, better transport, broadband and fusion power. A bolder, brighter Britain – with the confidence to “get on with Brexit”.

But between this and the sunlit uplands that Tories believe lie on the other side of Brexit, is the small matter of securing a deal or at least an exit. So the key moment arrived when the prime minister trailed his “constructive and reasonable” compromise plan. Details were not forthcoming in the speech but neither, contrary to advance reports, were any threats of this being a take-it-or-leave-it offer to the EU. Johnson knows there is more ground to give.

Of course, he maintained that the UK was ready for no deal, but he substituted rabble-rousing rhetoric, for talk of “our friends” in the EU.

Hostage to fortune

Perhaps the only curious aspect was the same constant hostage to fortune: promising that the UK will leave on October 31st. If he does not get a deal, the odds are strongly against such an outcome. Nigel Farage and his Brexit party will rub their nose in this broken pledge. Mr Johnson will then be fighting for his political life in an election campaign. But a key – and so far successful – part of his strategy has been to avoid the blame for a delay. He needs voters to believe any delay is the opposition’s fault. His most combative words were reserved for fellow MPs. If parliament were a school, he intoned, “Ofsted would be shutting it down”. If it were I’m A Celebrity, “the whole lot of us would have been voted out of the jungle”.

The Tory strategy, then, has been remorselessly two-track: to seek a deal but to unite Leavers (and accepting Remainers) behind him if an election comes before Brexit. In this, his conference speech never strayed off message. Tories leave Manchester in decent heart but knowing that their party’s and the country’s fate are being determined, ironically, in Brussels.

For now they stand like the rest of the UK, noses pressed to the glass of other rooms where the decisions are made. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019

Robert Shrimsley is a columnist with the Financial Times