It costs £520 for a Conservative activist to attend the party’s annual conference in Birmingham. On Tuesday, Boris Johnson went some way to ensuring value for money.
In a 35-minute speech to a packed fringe event, the former UK foreign secretary and leading Eurosceptic inspired the enthusiasm and laughter that no serving cabinet minister has managed so far.
His address had long been seen as the most politically fraught moment of the conference, given his widely-perceived ambition to replace Theresa May as Tory leader. It was billed as a “chuck Chequers” rally: he quit the cabinet in July in protest at the prime minister’s compromise Brexit plan that was thrashed out at her country residence.
Mr Johnson did not disappoint the 1,500 people who turned up to listen to him: he lambasted the Chequers plan for “forfeiting control” and being “not what we voted for” in the Brexit referendum.
He went as far as suggesting the prime minister risked being prosecuted under a 14th century statute that stipulates that “no foreign court or government shall have jurisdiction in this country” — although he did not mention the law was repealed in 1967.
Mr Johnson roamed across domestic policy in the first half of his near 4,000 word speech, in an attempt to position himself as the prime minister’s obvious successor. He championed the free market and low taxes, calling for a return to “basic Conservative ideas and values”.
He mocked the chancellor Philip Hammond, who on Monday said he did not expect Mr Johnson to become prime minister. That, joked Mr Johnson, was the first Treasury forecast in a long time that had “the esteemed ring of truth”.
The second half of his speech called for an alternative to Mrs May’s Chequers plan, which he argued would “only embolden those who are now calling for a second referendum”.
Mr Johnson said his preferred plan, a looser relationship with the EU via a free trade deal, would allow the UK the “regulatory freedom” to intensify its advantages in financial services and technology.
He insisted this was a serious alternative to the Chequers plan — but referred to Northern Ireland, the main stumbling block in the Brexit talks, just once.
Mr Johnson’s speech was not without contradictions. The one-time liberal mayor of London positioned himself as tough on crime: in an implicit attack on Mrs May, he criticised the softening of police stop-and-search laws as “politically correct nonsense”.
Moreover, the man who recently exclaimed “f*** business” urged his fellow Tories not to treat the private sector as “somehow morally dubious”. Only “a strong private sector economy [can] pay for superb public services,” he argued, although he said it was a “disgrace” that no banker had been jailed after the financial crisis and that utility companies “have cunning ways of ripping off the consumer”.
There were also Mr Johnson’s familiar rhetorical signposts — the references to classical history (Caractacus), British exporters (“the Uxbridge factory that makes bus stops in Las Vegas”), and the odd borderline inappropriate phrase (“put some lead in the collective pencil”).
Some Conservative MPs had sought to knock Mr Johnson even before he stood up. John Howell, who succeeded him as MP for Henley, said the former foreign secretary could just get lost — albeit in stronger terms. Damian Green, the former cabinet minister, said he would not watch the speech because he would be washing his hair — although he is mostly bald.
Many activists thought differently. While speeches in the main conference hall have been sparsely attended, Mr Johnson’s appearance led to long queues for 90 minutes. It clashed with around 30 other events, but was still over-subscribed, with Eurosceptic MPs such as David Davis, Iain Duncan Smith and Steve Baker in the front row.
By avoiding a direct challenge to the prime minister at the conference, the former foreign secretary may have furthered his case to be her natural successor. Yet even among the rank-and-file, enthusiasm was far from total.
Andrew Hardie, a retired GP and Conservative party member who had attended a recent fundraiser featuring Mr Johnson, said he had no intention of watching the speech.
“Waste of time,” he said. “He turns up and says, ‘I’ve got a plan’. You can’t produce something unless you’ve really worked on it. It’s purely self-aggrandisement.”