Boris bandwagon rolls on
Boris Johnson’s opening pitch for the Conservative party leadership was markedly different from his purple prose of the past, writes the FT’s Sebastian Payne. He avoided any major gaffes, dodged the difficult questions and declined to go into much detail about resolving the UK’s political crisis.
There were two new messages from Mr Johnson. First in Downing Street, it would be not be about him. Prime Minister Johnson would be more “Boris & Co”. This was an attempt to reassure wavering Conservatives who are concerned he cannot do details and would need a strong team to get things done. Here he was hoping to address that weakness.
It was no coincidence that two of his former deputy mayors-turned-MPs, Kit Malthouse and James Cleverly, were present – along with several other prominent figures from City Hall. As he told the audience “with a team of stars, we brought this city together”, Mr Johnson harked backed several times to his successes in reducing knife crime and delivering the 2012 Olympics. There was scant mention of his much less successful period as foreign secretary.
The second core message was about defeating Jeremy Corbyn. Mr Johnson painted himself as the person who defeated the Labour left in London – under former mayor Ken Livingstone – and could do so again with Mr Corbyn. He pointed to his electoral success of winning the mayoralty when the Tories were 17 points behind Labour.
There was still some of the old Mr Johnson there: he labelled the four nations of the UK the “awesome foursome”, pledged to defeat “red toothed, red clawed socialism” and reflected on regional inequality “we are somehow achieving Grand Prix speeds without firing on all cylinders”. In speaking to the “left behinds” who voted to leave the EU in 2016, he echoed the first speech given by Theresa May on the steps of No.10.
But the biggest unanswered question for Mr Johnson is the Brexit deadlock. He said Britain “must” leave the EU on October 31 – but not that it will, which could leave some wiggle room for his position to evolve once in power. His tone towards crashing out of the bloc was a little softer than in recent weeks, yet there was no plan about how he would avoid it.
The biggest enemy to Mr Johnson’s victory in this race has always been himself. His professionalised, even slightly dull, performance will have pleased his parliamentary supporters and campaign team. He notably apologised for some of his offensive in the comments in the past. Unlike three years ago he appears serious about going to Downing Street and has decided to duly tone things down.
The Boris bandwagon rolls on.