Conservative conference: four takeaways from Boris Johnson’s ‘barnstorming’ attack on PM

Former foreign secretary sets out alternative prospectus to packed hall at conference fringe event

Boris Johnson
Johnson speaking at the 1500 person ConservativeHome event at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham
(Image credit: 2018 Getty Images)

Boris Johnson has opened fire on Theresa May’s vision for government and her beleagured Chequers plan at a rally on the fringes of the Conservative Party Conference.

In what The Sun describes as a “barnstorming” speech to a packed 1,500-capacity hall, Johnson claimed to back May - but “made what looked like an unabashed bid to replace her, tearing in to her domestic agenda as well as her plans for Brexit”.

The bulk of the former foreign secretary’s alternative prospectus for the future of the Tory party “was devoted to setting out his alternative domestic policy vision”, says The Guardian.

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The newspaper reports that Johnson “spoke of his vision for a low tax, pro-business economy”, and called for an increase in stop and search powers, as he directly courted members, who get the final say in any future leadership contest.

But the biggest cheers from the audience “came when Johnson warned that the UK could not fudge Brexit now and get a better deal later, and when he defiantly called on the Government to ‘chuck Chequers’”, City A.M. says.

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Here are some key takeaways from Johnson’s speech:

A lesson in oratory

Many commentators agree that what really set Johnson’s address apart was the quality of the oratory in comparison with what had come before it at the conference.

“Johnson stands out a mile,” says The Spectator’s Damian Reilly. “Not just because of his own undeniable talent for oratory but because of the unignorable paucity of his colleagues’.”

His speech “was a reminder of his considerable political strengths”, agrees the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush. “He had Tory activists eating out of his hand after a performance that was, from a technical perspective, one of his best.”

Trump comparisons

Johnson courted controversy most clearly when he claimed that May’s Chequers plan, which envisions keeping the UK subject to EU trade regulations, might leave her open to prosecution under an archaic law.

“It occurs to me that the authors of the Chequers proposal risk prosecution under the 14th century statute of praemunire, which says that no foreign court or government shall have jurisdiction in this country,” he told Tory activists.

The comments “brought immediate comparisons on social media to the ‘lock her up’ calls from Donald Trump’s supporters about former US presidential candidate Hilary Clinton”, says Business Insider.

This similarity was picked up by a cabinet minister who told The Sun that Johnson has been sounding more like Trump since he had a meeting with the US president’s ally Steve Bannon. “Ever since he had his lunch with Bannon, he’s been talking a bit differently,” the unnamed minister said.


Johnson’s speech was as much of a threat to Chequers as it was a pitch for the leadership, and saw him making “his most impassioned attack yet on May’s handling of Brexit”, says the London Evening Standard.

“If we cheat the electorate - and Chequers is a cheat - we will escalate the sense of mistrust,” Johnson said. “We will give credence to those who cry betrayal, and I am afraid we will make it more likely that the ultimate beneficiary of the Chequers deal will be the far-right in the form of UKIP.”

Although he may not carry the support of the majority of Conservative MPs, at least 22 were counted in Johnson’s audience - “enough to defeat Chequers” in the House of Commons, notes HuffPost’s Paul Waugh.

So what next?

Addressing claims that he is campaigning to become the next Tory leader, Johnson congratulated Philip Hammond over the Chancellor’s assurances that such a power shift would never happen.

“It was the first Treasury forecast in a very long time that had a distinct ring of truth about it,” the former foreign secretary quipped.

But predictably, many commentators aren’t convinced by his claimed lack of interest in becoming PM.

The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg tweeted that his speech was a “blatant pitch for leadership by Johnson, right in [the] heart of conference where May [is] meant to be in charge”. The Financial Times’s Seb Payne described it as the “beginnings of a leadership bid”.

“If it felt as if Johnson had also constructed a mechanism for ousting Theresa May, the speech might have conveyed some menace,” says The Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow.

However, the pitch failed to suggest “that he has got around the problem that he does not have enough parliamentary votes to get rid of her”, Sparrow concludes.

The problem for Johnson “is that he is becoming a politician who is incredibly well designed to win the votes of paid-up members of the Conservative Party and is poorly positioned to win votes of anybody else”, agrees the New Statesman’s Bush.

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