Until Boris Johnson took to the podium, this week’s Tory conference was in danger of being the dullest in recent history.
Many took the view that the Conservative Party was still struggling to recover from its failure to win a proper majority in the General Election.
Shamefully, many MPs had stayed away – indeed, fewer than 100 of the party’s 316 had made the trip to Manchester. Party members – many elderly and dejected – were outnumbered by business lobbyists.
Until Boris Johnson took to the podium, this week’s Tory conference was in danger of being the dullest in recent history
What’s more, speeches from Cabinet ministers were, on the whole, weary, dull and mechanical. Let’s be frank. Party chairman Patrick McLoughlin needs to be put out of his misery.
Some consider that Prime Minister Theresa May deserves the same fate.
As for Chancellor Philip Hammond, what can one say? Conventionally-minded, dull, smug and self-satisfied, he’s guaranteed to put anyone off voting Tory for life.
By breakfast yesterday, I can testify that even loyal Tories regarded a Corbyn government as inevitable. And then along came Boris Johnson.
Party members were already queuing round the block to get in the hall two hours before Mr Johnson burst into the hall. He did not disappoint.
Indeed, the Foreign Secretary produced one of the best speeches of his political career, at a time when it has never been more urgently needed.
This was not, however, quite the speech Mr Johnson’s fans had been expecting.
Those hoping that he would try to topple the Prime Minister were deeply disappointed.
The Foreign Secretary produced one of the best speeches of his political career, at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester
Mr Johnson was loyal – a quality with which he is not usually associated. His well-crafted, genuinely funny and at times brilliant speech did not contain a word out of place.
It was even full of praise for the poisonous Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, whose own speech hours earlier had been full of sneering barbs at the Foreign Secretary.
And the attack on Jeremy Corbyn was conducted with a humour and finesse that put to shame Chancellor Hammond’s leaden oratory.
As far as Mrs May is concerned, it was the speech she yearned for – one that galvanised a Tory Party under her leadership.
Mr Johnson has a special quality, which is just as important in private as in political life. He makes people feel good about themselves. He cheers them up. He makes them laugh. He is a life-enhancer.
The quality that radiated above all else from Mr Johnson was optimism. In a masterpiece of timing by the deeply incompetent (or malicious?) Tory Party management, Mr Hammond was actually delivering another speech in another part of the conference building.
As always, the Chancellor conveyed gloom as Johnson exuded cheerfulness.
As always, Chancellor Philip Hammond (left) conveyed gloom as Johnson exuded cheerfulnes
Hammond concentrated on the threat of the future. Johnson spoke of hope and opportunity. The contrast between the two men, who have been fighting a bitter Whitehall battle over what form Brexit should take, is fascinating.
Hammond talks about Brexit in the superior tone of a Harley Street doctor discussing how best to deal with a fatal disease, going into detail about how to prolong the life of the patient while mitigating the effects of the malady, yet all the time ruling out any chance of cure.
Boris Johnson is the opposite. He exudes enjoyment of life (a heresy at Hammond’s Treasury). He addressed the subject of Brexit with vim and gusto.
He made life sound fun. He dwells on the future not the past.
No wonder the Europhile Financial Times and The Economist hate him so much.
At the end of Mr Johnson’s oration, the audience rose spontaneously to its feet. But it was telling that the Foreign Secretary did not stay to milk the applause or linger in the limelight. This was a loyal speech aimed at helping out the embattled Prime Minister, and not a leadership bid.
Theresa May will need to deliver a solid, capable and confident speech which shows she has the vision to govern Britain, if she is to outshine Johnson at the Tory party conference
Mr Johnson has changed the mood of Conservative Party conference, and in doing so undoubtedly extended a helping hand to Theresa May.
At the end of his speech, the conference no longer felt like a disaster. Party members can now look back at some golden moments.
To be fair, Scottish leader Ruth Davidson’s speech on Monday lifted everybody present. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt made a worthwhile intellectual contribution with his serious talk on how to mend the NHS.
But it was Boris Johnson who had real impact.
Now everything depends on Theresa May today. She won’t be as brilliant or as funny as Boris Johnson.
It would be unreasonable to expect that. But Mrs May will need to deliver a solid, capable and confident speech which shows she has the vision to govern Britain.
Boris Johnson will make mistakes and blunders. That’s for certain. But his speech showed that at least he has a mission and a vision.
I don’t believe, by the way, that Boris Johnson really wants to replace Mrs May. I think his loyalty yesterday was genuine.
But if Mrs May fails today, a process will be set in motion that could take him into a leadership challenge and No10 without him lifting a finger.