Conservative Party Conference: Day Three

Boris Johnson’s speech has achieved its desired result, the Tory conference is buzzing on the back of it, both for and against his fierce broadside on Chequers

The former Foreign Secretary never does anything by halves. His performance today with his “chuck Chequers” address to over 1,000 delegates demonstrates this in spades, especially with his passionate “there is still time” message to scrap the position the PM hammered out at her country retreat. Theresa May, usually the epitome of restraint, told the BBC she was “cross” with his stance against Chequers, not least because he was there – in her Cabinet – when they agreed to it.

Boris’ reception from delegates was rapturous, they loved what he had to say. The queues to get in were enormous and the anticipation of his address was wild. As everyone knows, Boris wasn’t just attacking the Brexit negotiation position, he was attacking the PM directly. This was the leadership bid speech all Westminster-watchers have been expecting.

Yes, he tried to talk about other stuff, for example stop and search and traditional core Tory values but Brexit was the point, and his intricate association with it. Emotive language being his stock in trade, he didn’t hold back, not least by slamming the Chequers proposal as an “outrage” and a “cheat” as well as jokingly evoking medieval legislation against national subservience to a foreign power. Ever being the scholar and student of history, he couldn’t resist. This was Boris at his most florid. He knew his crowd and they weren’t disappointed.

Whilst the audience loved his speech, many delegates at conference are concerned by the distraction this is causing to May’s premiership in connection to the pace of negotiations as they stand. Diehard loyalists are diehard loyalists, they’ll always back their leader. However, for those looking at the longer-term, instability such as this is troubling. Boris Johnson is political marmite for rank and file Conservatives, with little middle ground to be seen – you love him or you hate him. The same can be said for his more senior colleagues as he continues to provide division in his own unique style.

In the run-up to May’s speech tomorrow to close the conference, this kind of headache is the last thing she wants. The pressure not to repeat the agonising speech last year is incredible, intensified by the fact this is the last leader’s speech before the March deadline to leave the EU next year. Perhaps to her benefit, May and her team have had time to prepare for this and to get their narrative sorted. It will take a hell of a performance, with real substance, to mitigate the body blow delivered by Boris today.

By placing his tanks on the PM’s lawn, Boris has options. Could he trigger a leadership contest if he has the requisite numbers (which at present he does not)? Or will he content himself with piling on the pressure from the Tory Right to steer Brexit more in his envisaged direction? The answer is he’ll do what will assist him in his ambitious passage to Downing Street. Today marks the most overt and audacious step in that direction.

Lastly, staunch Brexiteers in the Cabinet may privately sympathise with his strident skepticism of Chequers, for example Liam Fox, but they are not willing to jeopardise the UK’s negotiating position even if it is weak. Compounding this reluctance is the fear that Corbyn could be PM in the event of a snap election, destroying their hopes for Brexit but also Conservative stewardship of the British economy.

Theresa May will really have to come up with the goods tomorrow with a solid speech, showing she’s in control.

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