A laptop displays a live broadcast by U.K. Prime Minster Boris Johnson delivering his leader's keynote speech at the Conservative Party virtual conference. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Distinctly average magic

They’d have clapped, it would have been the best clapping

“It isn’t enough to go back to normal,” Boris Johnson said at the start of his speech to the Conservative Party’s imaginary conference. He was attempting to lift our eyes to the mountaintop, but it was a reminder of how deep we are in the valley. Honestly, right now, “back to normal” sounds an entirely satisfactory destination, and one that’s quite a long way off.

The prime minister’s appearances increasingly evoke a sense of pity

Poor Boris. The prime minister’s appearances increasingly evoke a sense of pity, as the gap between the 2020 that he imagined and the 2020 that he got grows ever wider. The first Conservative leader to win a decent majority at an election since Margaret Thatcher! His speech should have been in Birmingham and should have begun with him being drowned out by cheers that went on forever.

Instead, he explained sadly to the cameras, “we’re not in Birmingham. This is not a conference hall. There is no one to clap.”

There wasn’t even a working autocue. Johnson was working from a paper copy of the speech on the lectern in front of him. Sometimes his messy hair and haphazard tone can provoke a warm chuckle. Speaking as he was from an empty bunker, they lent the event an air of desperation.

Whatever cocktail of antivirals they’re taking in Downing Street these days, I wish I could get some.

“I have had more than enough of this disease,” he told us, and it was easy to believe him. “Your government is working night and day to repel this virus,” he assured us. Over in Parliament, Matt Hancock was explaining, as he seems to do most days, why this work was not currently proceeding to schedule. The prime minister didn’t get into that. Indeed, there was nothing in the speech about the specifics of the fight against the virus, the billions spent on a testing system that falls over because it relies on a £100 spreadsheet, the moon-shot promises that don’t leave the launchpad.

Instead, he simply assured us that we would beat the virus because of our national spirit, “just as this country has seen off every alien invader for the last thousand years”. There are leaders who can carry this sort of stuff off, make you want to leave your trench and charge into the enemy’s guns. Boris Johnson is not one of those leaders.

There are leaders, too, who can seem to embody their entire nation, whose personal struggles can, at least in retrospect, seem to represent their country’s story. Boris Johnson isn’t one of these leaders, either, but that didn’t stop him trying it. The nation, he explained, had gone into this crisis economically unfit, just as he had gone into hospital several stone overweight. Just as he had now lost weight, the country now had to get into economic shape “after 12 years of relative anaemia”.

This is a criticism that we have heard often over the past decade, but generally from the Labour party. Moments earlier, Johnson had been explaining that the nation had in the previous decade enjoyed “sensible Conservative management of the public finances.”

Confused? It was a confusing speech. One moment the prime minister would explain that it was a good thing Rishi Sunak (and Johnson was keen to use his last name – first-name politicians are a dangerous bunch) had spent billions propping up the economy, and the next he was saying that this was the sort of thing Tories had to fight.

“We will fix the injustice of care home funding, bringing the magic of averages to the rescue of millions,” Johnson said, bafflingly. Asked for clarification, Downing Street said his words were self-explanatory. Whatever cocktail of antivirals they’re taking in there these days, I wish I could get some.

I would be careful, if I were Johnson. This lot praise you the most just before they slip the knife in

He attacked the SNP for wanting to impose “yet more constitutional wrangling” on the nation, which would be bad after all the constitutional wrangling of Brexit, which was good. Britain would defeat the virus because of our natural gutsiness, but also by “following the guidance”. We shall follow the guidance on the beaches. We shall wash our hands on the landing grounds. We shall stay at least two metres apart in the fields and in the streets. We shall stop drinking at ten and go home alone.

In a section that was probably supposed to be written up as “confronted his critics”, the prime minister said stories that he hadn’t recovered from Covid-19 were “the kind of seditious propaganda that you would expect from people who don’t want this government to succeed, who wanted to stop us delivering Brexit.” Was he talking about The Spectator? The Telegraph? Toby Young? Tory MPs? Maybe it was a reference to Britain’s well-known Liberal Democrat-dominated media.

There was the announcement about wind power, which, Johnson said, some people used to sneer at. Prominent among these people, of course, was Boris Johnson. He knows that. We know that. He knows we know that. Was his knowing reference to his past views a joke that we were all supposed to be in on, and if so, what was the joke? That we shouldn’t take him too seriously? It’s an odd joke for a prime minister to make.

It was, in any case, a joke that Johnson made, using the same words, at last year’s conference. Like history, his speeches are repeating themselves, though it’s unclear whether we’re at the tragedy or farce stage.

Tory MP WhatsApp groups were buzzing afterwards with exclamations of what a triumph the speech had been. I would be careful, if I were Johnson. This lot praise you the most just before they slip the knife in.

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