Tom Newton Dunn: Boris Johnson’s real problem? He is competitive and no one’s challenging him

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·6-min read
Tom Newton Dunn: Boris Johnson’s real problem? He is competitive and no one’s challenging him
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It’s been a boring old Tory conference. Mid-term conferences generally are, because they lack any dramatic urgency. What small policy announcements there have been in Manchester have been workmanlike but unremarkable. The speeches passable but un-inspirational, the energy levels flat.

The reality is that ministers’ minds are elsewhere, back down South. They would rather be in Whitehall, trying to solve the huge problems piling up on the Government’s shoulders.

This Tory conference also suffers from being far from the biggest political event of even this month. That will be the Budget and spending review, both on October 27, when real announcements will come.

“Actually, we need a party conference right now like a hole in the head,” one special adviser complains. Yet despite all those excuses, I couldn’t stop wondering why this conference still seemed so lifeless.

And then it hit me. I worked out what we were missing: the Boris Johnson character of old who terrorised Tory conferences for a decade under previous party leaders.

Whether as London mayor, foreign secretary or rebel backbencher, he’d appear for a day (usually Tuesdays, which we dubbed “Boris Day”). A conference darling and a challenger to the throne, hoovering up all the attention and wreaking havoc on No 10’s carefully constructed news grid. An ever-present threat keeping David Cameron and then Theresa May on their toes.

Now the poacher has turned gamekeeper as the PM, and he is much enjoying all his new clothes.

As Johnson, above in Manchester, put it with a boastful grin when I interviewed him yesterday morning: “If the biggest reproach for me at this conference is that there hasn’t been some sort of populist uprising on the fringe, some new standard bearer of revolt, then… it’s all going horribly right.”

But is it? The Prime Minister has undoubtedly been “in Emperor mode”, as one Tory figure here put it. But it’s beginning to look like the Emperor, who has had one of the sharpest ears in modern political times, has stopped listening.

Amid the economic turbulence of the past two weeks, it’s hard not to detect an air of complacency creeping into the government machine. There is no crisis, Boris declared on his broadcast round yesterday morning, over the cost of living, supply chains or the labour market.

Tell that to motorists who have spent the past two weeks queueing outside petrol stations. Or pig farmers who have begun to slaughter and burn their swine because there aren’t enough abattoir workers to butcher them. Or low-income families who lose £20 a week in Universal Credit from today.

Johnson’s response? To double down on his dismissal of pig farmers and make jokes to interviewers like me about how many bacon sandwiches we’ve eaten.

Would the prince-across-the-water challenger Boris Johnson of yesteryear have allowed Prime Minister Boris Johnson to get away with that sort of flippancy? A good question he should ask his previous self.

The truth is that nobody thrives more on competition than Johnson. He’s the most competitive person any of us have ever met. Look at how he played in charity football games, with X-rated tackles aplenty, or how he knocked over a 10-year-old boy during a game of rugby in Japan.

But at the moment, he doesn’t have any of it. He is unchallenged. He is under no threat from Keir Starmer, who still lags in the polls and whose Labour Party has just started a new internecine war as their conference in Brighton proved last week. Johnson is not threatened internally either.

There are the Cabinet’s ambitious. Joining Rishi Sunak as wannabe heir apparent in Manchester was Liz Truss after her elevation in the reshuffle. Outside of the Cabinet, there are also future contenders: the erudite Tom Tugendhat in the Commons and the highly impressive Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen outside it.

But their time is palpably not yet, and they are all some way off, like plums that are still green and unripe.

More the shame that the whole battlefield is currently empty, with Johnson standing alone as the undisputed political king of the castle. Not just for the Tory party or the Government’s sake. For what Boris Johnson himself really needs is a Boris Johnson.

Get a room! £1,400 hotel bill blows the Tory budget

Tory conference exists largely as a huge money-raiser for party coffers. Millions are taken from big business and lobbyists in exchange for the chance to rub shoulders with power inside the secure bubble.

It’s not the same financially rewarding experience for power itself. The Cabinet are all under strict orders to stay in the five-star Midland Hotel within the security bubble for their own protection. But these days, each has to pick up the whopping £1,400 bill for their stays, I learn. “That was a bit of a shock,” one (now slightly poorer) Cabinet minister protests.

The PM buys more time on big speech conference

Speech discipline was the new message discipline up here at Tory conference in Manchester.

All ministers except Chancellor Rishi Sunak, below, were restricted to seven minutes, and were ordered by No 10 not to reveal any big policies at all.

It quickly became clear that Boris Johnson wanted to pilfer any decent announcements for his speech today. This year, the Tory leader’s address was not just the main event, but the only event.

Why? Because Johnson has long planned to use it as a pivot to shift his administration from a Covid government to election delivery machine. A total relaunch.

Johnson began writing the speech startlingly early for him. He had initial meetings with aides about it in July and penned a 6,500-word first draft on the plane to and from the UN General Assembly last month. The speech wasn’t finished yesterday and he pulled out of drinks receptions to buy yet more time on it.

For today at least, the PM is taking his job very seriously.

The speech itself was classically Johnsonian, tub-thumping and gag-packed, long on vision but surprisingly wafer-thin on policy.

He wrote it all himself, as he always does. He also self-pens every newspaper article that appears under his name. That’s very rare for Prime Ministers whose diaries are so rammed.

But for this speech, he also sought help over messaging from a small team of closely trusted aides, including his Aussie election guru Isaac Levido and CCHQ’s Political Director Ross Kempsell, who was in charge of coordinating the process.

Tom Newton Dunn is a presenter and Chief Political Commentator on Times Radio

Did you watch Boris’s conference speech? Let us know in the comments below.

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