Public affairs pros react to the Prime Minister's Conservative Party conference speech

Boris Johnson shrugged off reputational issues that have dogged him over the past few days to pave the way for a general election - widely expected this autumn - in his speech to the party faithful on the final day of the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.

Boris Johnson compared Parliament to a broken laptop and a failing school because it has not delivered Brexit (pic credit: BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)
Boris Johnson compared Parliament to a broken laptop and a failing school because it has not delivered Brexit (pic credit: BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)

A confident Johnson began by paying tribute to his predecessor, Theresa May, for her service, as well as former Scottish Conservatives' leader Ruth Davidson.

Amid the inevitable jokes and classical references – "Look it up," he told a bemused conference at one point – the prime minister touched on themes including the danger of returning the Labour Party to power, law and order, renewal of the UK and, of course, Brexit.

Promising several times to "get Brexit done", Johnson warned of the grave consequences of failing to honour the result of the 2016 referendum.

He also attempted to reach out to those who voted Remain by telling them that, first and foremost, they were democrats who should respect the result.

In a section touching on his personal values, Johnson revealed that his mother had voted Leave in 2016, garnering cheers from the hall; but when he told delegates "we are European", the applause was considerably more muted.

Now, four public affairs specialists give their reaction to the prime minister’s speech.

Nick Williams, managing director, issues and public affairs, BCW London

Nick Williams

A Party conference dominated by Boris Johnson – for positive and sometimes negative reasons – clearly demonstrated why he is so loved by his supporters.

His first speech as PM came at a politically crucial time with the government outlining its final proposals on the Northern Ireland backstop.

This was the PM’s big chance to communicate to all those he needs on-side: Conservative MPs, party members, and the country. No wonder the PM’s team had sought to set the agenda from the early hours with a targeted leak to his favourite newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, together with a picture of him with his sleeves rolled up.

No mistaking the message here.

Johnson mobilised the English language and sent it into battle against all those who oppose him. In doing so he positioned himself on the side of the people and against all those he sees as wanting to damage the country, from the Remainers to Jeremy Corbyn and the SNP.

In between the jokes and the rhetoric, Johnson’s main message clearly came through: get Brexit done. 

But he used his wider remarks in anticipation of the general election to come and the soundbites that will resonate with the public. 

Reiterating his One Nation credentials and taking the fight to Labour’s heartland issues – namely the NHS.

We already knew that Boris can command a room; but is he a political winner?

Emily Wallace, partner, GPlus

Emily Wallace

The stakes could not have been greater as the prime minister took to the stage to deliver a rallying cry to the Tory faithful, a pre-election message to the country and his final offer to the European Union. With allegations of groping and financial misconduct overshadowing him, this speech also needed to restore trust and faith in his leadership and confidence in his plan for delivering Brexit.

A high-risk – and, some might say, reckless – "do or die" strategy.

The tone was refreshingly moderate and mainstream, marking a significant shift from the combative tones of recent weeks. A short opening burst attacking Parliament and plenty of jibes at his political opponents, but also huge swathes of traditional One Nation Conservative narrative, supporting investment in the NHS, police, schools, buses and job-creation.

It was typically entertaining and, as such, will have re-energised some that have lost confidence in the PM by re-emphasising his likeability and positive and optimistic vision for the future. But it was, perhaps, too light-hearted and too lightweight to have any lasting impact.

In truth this speech was only half the story, with the second and more serious half contained in the new proposals being sent to Brussels, which were widely trailed and briefed out in advance by Downing Street overnight.

Mark Gallagher, founder, Pagefield

Mark Gallagher

At one level, Boris had an easy job today – invigorating the Tory tribe. And he did it – well – easily.

Unlike his hapless predecessor, he’s a good platform performer and was delivering his speech to a Tory tribe largely content with their new leader. Johnson’s pugilistic entrance to the arena, through a crowd of adoring members, underlined a wider political point: Boris Johnson is ready for a fight.

His firmness on Brexit chimed especially well with the party faithful – a unity of purpose and ideology between leadership and membership not seen since Mrs Thatcher. But Boris had a more difficult challenge, which was to use this speech to cut through to the circa 40 per cent of the population he needs to vote for him and his party at the next general election.

His focus on One Nation Conservatism was a useful reminder to the electorate that he is essentially cut from the same cloth as Cameron and Blair. But I have my doubts whether Johnson’s clumsy meander through the Tories' 'greatest hits' policy announcements of the past week will be anything like enough to cut through the contempt, distrust and rage felt by so many voters about politicians in general, and the Conservative Party in particular.

Lucy Holbrook, managing director, Field Consulting

Lucy Holbrook

It was a conference that almost didn’t happen, and distractions were numerous throughout the past few days, from allegations about the prime minister’s personal life to MPs carrying out their daily work in Westminster. Nevertheless, Boris Johnson’s first address to Conference as prime minister today was hotly anticipated.

The verdict? Well, the hall loved it… but does that change anything outside?

In a typically rambunctious address full of gags, Johnson compared the British political system to reality television show 'I'm a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here' and suggested he’d like to send Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn out to orbit in space. This set-piece speech was all about reasserting the PM's position after what can only be termed as a difficult couple of weeks, and it was largely devoid of any new policy proposals or detail on his European negotiation strategy.

Johnson did what he needed to appeal to party cheerleaders in Manchester, but the big question remains whether he will do enough over the next 29 days to keep to his promise that the UK will "get Brexit done" by 31 October. If not, I suspect this will be Boris’ first and last address to conference as PM.



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