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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

Boris Johnson challenge stutters with scattergun speech to Conservative grassroots

Former foreign secretary struggles with role of insurgent, aims fire both at Theresa May and Labour leader Corbyn

Boris Johnson delivers a speech during the Conservative Party annual conference in Birmingham. Bloomberg
Boris Johnson delivers a speech during the Conservative Party annual conference in Birmingham. Bloomberg

Boris Johnson, the colourful ex-Mayor of London and foreign secretary, swept in to annual Conservative Party conference on Tuesday to address an adoring crowd but the speech fired barbs in every direction, leaving the audience with mixed emotions.

Having taken a stand to oppose Mrs May’s drive to secure a Brexit compromise with Brussels, Mr Johnson has sought to mark out a right-wing vision of a free-trading nation seeking deals with the world while reducing taxes at home.

With the clock ticking before a March deadline for Britain to leave the EU, a hard-core of Conservative Party activists clamour for Mr Johnson to oust Mrs May and deliver his vision from No 10 Downing St.

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The Tory faithful had begun queueing for the event more than two hours before it began and an extra tier in the auditorium had to be opened to seat the 1,500 activists who turned up.

“I can’t see what they’re waiting for,” an activist told The National said, “why don’t they just get rid of her?”

The assault on Mrs May centred on Brexit, calling her plans an “outrage” that would leave Britain half-in, half-out of Europe.

Known as the Chequers deal, for the August meeting at her country house that backed the plan and triggered Mr Johnson’s resignation, Mrs May had proposed locking the country into the “tractor beams of Brussels” and a “politically humiliating” dead-end for global trade ambitions.

But while attacking the deal frequently, he signally failed to call for Mrs May’s head.

Instead he praised and professed loyalty to the original Lancaster House principles she had set out in January 2017, in which she vowed to take Britain out of the Single Market.

Mr Johnson then laid into opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn with some fairly predictable and well-received jibes about his Marxist views.

He bemoaned that Britain had lower rates of owner-occupation of private housing than in France or Germany, and he staked out his Thatcherite principles with a call for the party to re-energise the house-building sector.

He flirted with populism, be declaring that it was “a disgrace” that no banker went to jail for 2008 crash, to approving applause, and he took a light pop at the utility companies for “ripping off” consumers, but claimed that these few failures don’t mean the free market doesn't work..

And he ended his speech “urging our friends in government to deliver what the people voted for, to back Theresa May in the best way possible, by softly, quietly, and sensibly backing her original plan. And in so doing to believe in conservatism and to believe in Britain.”

Instant reaction after the event was muted. “It was a damp squib really,” a young activist told The National. “I was expecting something much more exciting.”

An older member when asked if it was the speech of a leader in waiting said “No. It had entertainment value, [but he’s] not leadership material.”