That was the most Boris Johnson speech imaginable. His supporters at party conference will have lapped it up, they certainly did in the hall — and his detractors will have been infuriated by it.
Johnson’s political aim was clear. To sprawl across the centre-ground, to ensure that to outflank him you have to go pretty far to the left on economics and the right on culture. He was the NHS lover who opposes cancel culture. He used jokes not just to emphasise his own points but to attack his opponents too. His claim that if ‘Captain Hindsight’, Keir Starmer, had been in charge of Columbus’s expedition they would only have discovered Tenerife was a potent example of political humour.
But there was a risk in the speech too. As Johnson spoke, the gas price was surging again. It is heading to a point where it is going to both drive up inflation and, one suspects, lead to some factories downing tools. The speech, though, did little to prepare people for the tough times ahead. There was an acknowledgement that the NHS waiting list would get worse before it got better, but that was about it.
At the end of this conference season it is clear that the biggest threat to Johnson is events, not Keir Starmer or some internal rival. He dominates his own party and when the Tories are raising taxes to put more money into the NHS it is hard to see what political space is left for Labour. The danger for Johnson, though, is that energy prices push up inflation and that voters start to feel their living standards being squeezed. If that happens, Johnson would find those circumstances a far more serious threat to his electoral coalition than any of Starmer’s attacks on him.
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