After days of Manchester spit and grey, the sun came out for the Prime Minister. Pathetic fallacy is embarrassingly real. He has his jumbo majority, his Brexit, his vaccine programme. Of course he can put the sun in his pocket too.
Boris stepped up to the lectern, boyish and bashful, and started taking the piss out of Michael Gove. The Minister for Levelling Up turned jelly puce. The auditorium hummed, gagged, sputtered and groaned. Years ago, Julian Critchley said Michael Heseltine knew exactly where to find the clitoris of the Conservative Party. The Prime Minister is well within this subtle and sensitive tradition.
He likes jokes best of all. Boris is greedy for them. Today there were puns, put-downs, satirical flights, whimsical interludes, absurd images, and ribald allusions. The hall adored them. If Columbus had listened to Keir Starmer, he would have been famous for discovering Tenerife, Boris said (whoops, cheers, screams, hoots). Beavers sometimes build without local authority, Boris said (giggles, tee-hees). There are sixty six thousand sausages aboard HMS Elizabeth, Boris said (indulgent chuckles). They still love him here. The grins on the party members’ faces show it more than anything else could.
They would say “YES!” to him before he asked them a question. Even if the question was “Would you, errr, umm, rather mind sticking your hand in this oven?”, they’d unhesitatingly grill their fingers, melt their thumbs. He hasn’t let them down yet. So the relentless gaggery is pure fun, not needily insecure. Not yet.
Boris was ordered not to be funny, right from the start. In the Nineties, Michael Portillo told him that he would have to choose between politics and comedy. Max Hastings warned him that “a penchant for comedy is an almost insuperable obstacle for achieving political office”.
And where are they now? Hastings writes his door stopping histories about 20th-century wars that I suspect are much more bought than read. Portillo wears his silly jackets on television. Boris holds the Conservative Party in his hands.
And perhaps he knows the party is anxious. (What would Conservatism be without anxiety?) The weeks leading up to conference were full of ominous signs and dreadful headlines. Almost every day the Telegraph would decry the social care tax hike as the final death of Tory politics, proclaim the twilight of the West as China rises, fulminate about the “woke” takeover of the National Trust.
A few days earlier, I’d watched Boris speak to the Scottish Conservatives at their reception, and encountered this pessimistic mood. It was strange, even unsettling. He floundered around, but it wasn’t funny. His unbuttonedness just left him naked. The speech didn’t work. The party member stood beside me drunkenly complained that it was all: “Mwah mwah mwah, cripes, and oops.”
And you could see that the Prime Minister was disappointed. In that room the house was not brought down, the roof was unraised. I heard rumours that he’d gone back to his suite at the Midland to write jokes and nothing else. Even Carrie wouldn’t be allowed to visit him.
Didn’t the effort of it show, in every sense of the word effort? Boris was rewarded. When I spoke after the speech to party members like Alaistair, a retired bus driver in his 60s, they beamed and bounced. Their naughty, highly unserious boy had done it again. “He’s a genius,” Alaistair said. “His IQ must be off the scale.” “He’s a humanist,” someone else at our table chipped in. “Sorry, I mean a humorist. No, you know what?” He blinked slowly. “Boris is a humorist and a humanist.” The table was satisfied with this.
What would that speech have been without all the humanist-humorism? A Conservative Prime Minister praising wind farms and nurses. Infelicitous statements about the housing sector that would make every renter in the country vomit. Boasting about a defence pact that commits the Armed Forces to an unwinnable war in the South China Sea.
Boris bamboozles. He describes, and never analyses. Ultimately he de-clarifies, like fog. Above all, there was a sense here of problems avoided. And there’s nothing very funny about that.