MHP’s Public Affairs team assesses the Prime Minister’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference.
What did Boris have to do?
He didn’t have to advance new policies – their manifesto is already stuck to the side of the Conference hall. He didn’t have to offer a vision of the country – ‘hope’, ‘boosterism’ and the promise of ‘moving on’ from the last three years are all he needs.
He had to sound determined to leave the EU “come what may” on October 31st without gifting his enemies further ammunition with which to cast him as a dangerous demagogue. On these terms, it was successful.
This was a hard, uncompromising message conveyed in conciliatory, optimistic tones, with jokes deployed to soften his arguments. He damned Parliament by likening it to a “pizza wheel of doom”, fantasised about the Speaker eating a kangaroo’s testicle and described our constitutional crisis as “an age of creative litigation”.
He delivered a “Parliament vs the People” narrative dressed up as One Nation Toryism, designed to offer voters the choice between a post-Brexit healing process under the Tories or “total national discord” under Labour. Boris was speaking to a weary nation, rather than throwing red meat to the hall.
Joint Head of Public Affairs
Calm down dear.
Boris Johnson seemed to have heeded David Cameron’s famous advice when he took to the Manchester stage today.
Last night’s tough talk of a take-it-or-leave-it final offer to Brussels – “My Brexit ultimatum” as today’s Sun put it – was watered down to “constructive and reasonable proposals” with “compromise for both sides”.
Delegates may not have been convinced by his “I love Europe” claim. But it seems the PM took on board the EU response to last night’s hard line.
Unusually there wasn’t a single new policy in the Leader’s speech. And his description of his bus-painting skills as “slightly inexact” could have applied to his trot through the Government’s achievements, particularly his claim to have “tackled” the nation’s £1.8 trillion debt.
“Flat”, “stale” and “meandering” according to Sky News’ pundits. “The hall adored it, but it will have no impact in Brussels where he most needs it,” according to The Sun’s Political Editor.
Joint Head of Public Affairs
There are some Leaders’ speeches that owe more to style than substance. Others – in times of challenge and difficulty – have no option but to lead on substance. This lacked both. Eschewing the autocue for an informal note delivery, attendees in the hall were deprived of the clear clap lines they rely on and had to take often risky decisions to applaud enthusiastically.
In the front row Ministers sat uncomfortably, waiting for a reference to them or their portfolio, dreading their TV cutaway moment being ruined by a momentary lapse of concentration. This was neither grand oration nor fireside chat. It was where speechcraft has gone for a long rest. We learned all sorts of things during the course of his address: that he doesn’t understand broadband technology; that the UK may be on the verge of a significant breakthrough in nuclear fission technology; and that his mother voted ‘Leave’.
But for all that, it communicated one clear message. That he will get Brexit done on the 31st October. Clarity, he hopes, where it matters.
Managing Director, Health
Ostensibly, the Prime Minister found himself back on home territory this morning. As London Mayor and in his wilderness years, the adoring Conference loyalists would queue around the corner to hear his latest gags and fawn over his reputation as the ‘Heineken’ politician, reaching parts of the electorate that no one else can.
It was no surprise that one element of this experience was repeated in Manchester. Anyone left at this stage of the week will be a dyed in the wool Boris enthusiast. Many have waited ten years or more to see their man on stage as Leader and PM.
But how impressed were they? Yes they laughed at the jokes and smirked at his use of ‘naughty’ words. But some will regret having got what they wished for. The performance was impressively devoid of new material. Reports suggest aides dispensed with the traditional journalist briefing after the speech to explain the detail of the policies it contained. No need if there are no such policies.
Thin gruel for the doorstep battle ahead.
Unsurprisingly, given the consistency of #GetBrexitDone messaging around #CPC19 this was the third most shared/Tweeted message to come out of Boris Johnson’s speech today.
But the top phrase was dominated by an unrelated tweet from @KTHopkins earlier in the day “Real excitement in the U.K. for the first time in such a long time.” (Shared 1.5K times online). Katie Hopkins wasn’t the only celebrity to nudge into the speech topics, Johnson’s observation “Voters have more say over I’m a Celebrity than they do over this House of Commons” also made it into the Top 10 Twitter topics.
Johnson’s speech on Twitter was further hijacked by a single tweet from Sky News Political Correspondent @lewis_goodall: “Boris Johnson repeats assertion which has been commonplace all this week, that the govt has “cleared up the debt”. Current UK debt? Around £1.8 trillion. #cpc19″ [This was ReTweeted over 700 times and gained over 1,000 Likes]
|2||Current UK debt||459|
|5||invest in the NHS||188|
|8||party of the NHS||68|
Associate Director, Public Affairs
Neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Boris Johnson are particularly impressive deliverers of set-piece speeches: Corbyn because he tends to react to each new line on his autocue as if it’s the first time he’s ever read it, and Johnson (who refuses to use an autocue) because he prefers to speak digressively and off-the-cuff. At its best, a digressive, off-the-cuff style can sound natural, intimate and conversational. At its worst, it can sound as if the speaker is making it up as he goes along, and heightens the sense that a speech lacks structure.
Boris Johnson’s speech was a victim of this: hard to listen to and, if anyone ever manages to make a transcript, pretty much impossible to read or follow. There was no through-line, no argument, no new policy. It was very much in the vein Johnson perfected for his Conference speeches as London Mayor: list a bunch of high-tech things that are already happening; bash the doomsayers; project a vague sense of can-do optimism.
It used to work, when his speeches didn’t matter very much. But he is Prime Minister now.
Account Director, Public Affairs
In a speech centred around gags, pop culture references and crowd participation, Boris Johnson has surely become the first UK Prime Minister to use the word “testicle” in a conference address.
With the message discipline he is known for, the Prime Minister mapped out his vision for getting Brexit done by the end of October, before rattling off a series of future policy measures hinging on a “One Nation Tory” platform; NHS investment, regional growth and prosperity, commitment to universal broadband coverage and, very specifically, investment in buses all seem to be on the cards. Detail was not forthcoming, however, and instead the Prime Minister reverted to his habit of joking and gesticulating to the crowd, playing up to the somewhat lacklustre audience in the hall.
There was also little clarity on how Brexit would be delivered by the end of October, with continued reiteration that a deal would be forthcoming, despite the “pizza wheel of doom” in Parliament. With abundant criticism of both the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats scattered throughout his speech, it remains to be seen how the Prime Minister will achieve consensus – or even vague agreement – in order to get the promised deal through before the end of this month.
Senior Account Manager, Public Affairs
There were no surprises in the Prime Minister’s speech today (apart from its length, which came in considerably shorter than the hour plus normally expected from Leaders’ conference speeches). Re-iterating his pledge to “Get Brexit Done” and heralding Government investment in the NHS, Mr Johnson will be hoping that this is enough to get his party over the line in a general election which is still widely expected before Christmas, especially with the Remain vote so split (a poll out this morning put the Liberal Democrats in second place ahead of Labour).
The big question remains: with the Benn Act / Surrender Act (choose as you please) now in force, what does the PM do if, as now looks likely, he can’t strike a new Brexit deal with the EU at the mid-October European Council?
Break the law? Fight the Act in the Supreme Court? Break his October 31st pledge? On the answer to this question hangs not only the Conservatives’ electoral prospects but the course of this country for years to come.
Account Manager, Public Affairs
In the end it was more of a repositioning than an unveiling. Those who tuned into the Prime Minister’s speech expecting to hear (the much-promised) detail on how the Government is aiming to break the Brexit deadlock will still be waiting, and could be for some time.
What they were treated to instead was more of a position statement from the Prime Minister. A fairly hopeful run-down of how he thinks the country sees ‘brand Boris’. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, this isn’t up to him to decide.
Therein lies the problem for the Prime Minister. He has faced scrutiny before, but the scrutiny that faces a Prime Minister is on a different level. He has stayed true to form today, using bluster and a faux-improvisational delivery style to deliver this important speech on-brand. The issue for him is, as time goes on, how will that brand hold up under the spotlight?