Watching Priti Patel tossing chunks of glistening legislation to the rapt audience at the Tory Party Conference is to be powerfully reminded of feeding time at the zoo. The same Pavlovian flutter of audience hands at the applause lines; the same salivating eagerness for yet more blood, yet more political protein; the same smacking of lips as another gristle-free morsel slips down. Climate protesters jailed for life; asylum-seekers forced to learn French, in case they survive a successful return crossing; Fortress Shambolica safe in the hands of a Home Secretary who has no fear of the tough decisions. ‘You owe me one’, goes the underlying message. Downing Street will do nicely. Thank you, and good night.
Wherever you looked in the conference schedule, any notion of the real world had been tidied away, secured by a ribbon of vacuous soundbites. Queues at fuel stations were birth pangs of the new economy, a wholly promising sign that things were on the mend. Empty supermarket shelves were a gauntlet thrown down to the newly-recruited army of home-grown cleaners. Carping fishermen were simply Doomsters in the pay of Captain Hindsight, while all those all those healthy piglets waiting patiently to be shot for lack of Polish butchers was the living proof of a resilient food chain. As Johnson himself observed sagely, ‘eat a bacon sandwich and you’re tasting dead pig.’
Often the biggest lies are betrayed on the soundtrack. Johnson has a corking chuckle. It comes with a curl of his lips that could be mockery, or malice, or maybe surprise that anyone can be silly enough to take him at his word. Whatever the truth, a dodgy proposition in a setting like this, Conference obliged by offering him the perfect opportunity to put his foot to the floor and do the closing speech full justice. This is a leader, according to one cabinet member, who lives an essentially simple life. He wants to be World King. He needs to be in sole charge, without the chore of attending to the small print. Hence the Kingdom of Shambolica.
So far, so Boris. But the waters are getting choppier, not just for the rest of the nation but for Johnson himself. More and more interviewers, alarmingly well informed, are ceasing to take him seriously. On Tuesday’s, BBC Radio Four’s, Today programme, Nick Robinson lost patience with the kingly bullshit and the blatant evasions. “Prime Minister …” he said “… we are going to have questions and answers, not where you merely talk, if you don’t mind.” I can remember no put-down this magisterial and, for a millisecond, even Johnson was nonplussed before he rallied his platoons and headed back to the swamps of Shambolica. Something very similar happened that same night on Channel Four News, with Gary Gibbon open-mouthed in disbelief at the Prime Minister’s refusal to address anything but his own fantasies.
But that was Tuesday and for Wednesday’s key conference speech, our hero was back with a very different kind of audience. Until that moment, mere cabinet ministers, nodding heads around the top table, had been obliged to perform in an under-furnished enclosure within earshot of a stall selling scented candles to passing delegates. This has done nothing to burnish ministerial reputations, which is probably the whole point of the exercise. But Johnson has ordered the construction of an arena of his very own: bigger, better insulated, altogether more regal. The World King of Shambolica may just have impoverished another million or two families this very morning by slashing their universal credit, but he’s now decided that Conference – and the nation at large – are in dire need of the Full Booster.
He appears a couple of minutes late, as becomes a monarch. Conference rumours are putting serious money on this government, going long on Project Change, demanding the full five years before the country magically awakes to the golden uplands of Brexitland. Johnson’s warm-up lines do nothing to puncture the bubble that insulates rows of well-padded delegates from the chaos outside. ‘Fantastic to be back here in person,’ he booms. ‘Back in a typical Conservative cheek-by-jowler.’
Then comes 45 minutes of classic political knockabout, the undisputed King of Shambolica rampaging across the political landscape armed with a sparkling wit and inspired phrase-making, lobbing verbal hand grenades in every direction, putting every other politician – Tory or otherwise – in the shade. No member of the cabinet or the opposition benches is safe. Captain Hindsight, the seriously rattled bus conductor; Michael Bon Jovi, legend of the dance floor; Jacob Rees-Mogg, with his tireless efforts to double the population.
These are cartoon figures in the giddy upside-down world of Shambolica, and the audience love him for it. Their leader, their monarch, their king will never bore them to death with tiresome stats or detailed plans. That’s not what he’s for. He’s here to make mischief. He’s here to make them laugh. He’s here to take a wild swipe at any available target, and then bow his head beneath wave after wave of fervent stand-up applause. His mission in life is to get people on their feet. He needs them to forget about the real world and buy into that sweeter fantasy that is the current régime.
Policy, it turns out, is for losers. As are petrol queues, soaring gas prices, dead piglets, and nothing left to eat on the family table by the end of the week. Instead, like his comely home secretary, he tosses out an assortment of abstract sweeties in loose formation: science, innovation, jabs, jobs, guts, thrift, stamina, resolve, optimism, radicalism, skills, investment, a mega-wage for every household, wayside bushes for truckies to piss in, otters, beavers, the glories of an ancient landscape, the list goes giddily on. At one point, like the rhetorical magician that he is, he manages to elide the humiliation of the fall of Kabul with the undoubted triumph of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine, donated to the entire world for FREE. These magnificent achievements, he roars, were a tribute to Brit logistics, and to Brit generosity, and the world should be duly grateful for both.
By now, the entire audience are on their feet. The lost decades of drift and dither are over. We need to be getting on with the job. And we’re only too happy, above all, to pick fights with everything and everybody as the future hoves into view. New economic vision. New wallpaper. New everything. Build Back Better. Blah blah blah. Whatever it takes.
Johnson gathers his papers and peers around. His job is done. He collects his new wife and makes his way towards the back of the hall, parting the curtains of applause with vague gestures of his hand. Another rollicking speech. Another 45 minutes invested in mockery, laughter, and feel-good nothings. By lunchtime, conference is abuzz with what a card he is. And the spot price of gas is threatening to go through the roof.
Thank you, and goodnight.