Down the years Boris Johnson has given many speeches to Tory party conference – and his audiences have always responded in exactly the same way. When he’s telling funny stories, and saying funny long words, they’re in raptures. They sigh. They mew. They wriggle with pleasure.
But then, somewhere in the middle, he’ll do a couple of minutes featuring no funny stories and no funny long words. Instead: a run-through of statistics, aims, achievements, and so on. And during those two non-jokey minutes, you can feel his audience drifting. See eyes glazing over. Hear coughing and rustling. They don’t actually grumble. But quite plainly, they’re itching for him to go back to the funny stories and the funny long words.
Today in London, Mr Johnson launched his leadership campaign by giving a speech. And essentially, it was those two minutes, stretched out to 20.
Not a single joke, and only one funny long word (“syzygy”). It barely sounded like him at all. Which, presumably, is the point – the aim of the speech being to show that, in serious times, Mr Johnson can himself be serious.
Did it work? I suppose it depends how you define serious. Personally, I think that being funny doesn’t automatically mean that you’re unserious. And, by the same token, being earnest doesn’t automatically mean that you’re serious. Seriousness is a matter of content, rather than tone.
A really serious speech might, for example, explain in detail how to get a better deal from the EU, or analyse the difficulties of no deal. In today’s speech, any such details were kept strictly under wraps. In their place were pleas for the country to regain its “confidence” and “self-belief”. Someone like Rory Stewart might call it the Disney approach to politics: your dreams will come true, if you wish upon a star. The star, in this case, being Mr Johnson.
Still, his supporters in the room – mostly Tory MPs – clearly loved it. It appeared to be exactly what they wanted to hear. During the early part of the speech, the mood was somewhat deflated by the sound of an anti-Brexit activist outside, tirelessly bellowing “B------S TO BORIS!” at the top of his lungs, but Mr Johnson ploughed on. He stuck to his script, and he made no howlers. The room rose to applaud.
The Q&A afterwards was strikingly brief: Mr Johnson took just six questions (“A huge number,” he insisted). Given that, since Theresa May resigned, he’s granted just one interview, journalists protested, but his supporters seemed to approve. When Sky’s Beth Rigby reminded him of the time he said the burqa made Muslim women look like “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”, Tory MPs actually jeered her.
As well as ditching the jokes, incidentally, Mr Johnson has lost a lot of weight. Sometimes politicians decide to lose weight because they’re told they’ll be taken more seriously. But they can also end up looking as if they’ve had all the fun sucked out of them.