POLITICS
24/07/2019 8:33 PM AEST | Updated 24/07/2019 8:33 PM AEST

How Boris Johnson, The Clown Prince Of British Politics, Finally Got His Coronation

Analysis of the new Tory leader's big day. Before his even bigger day.

Just over the road from Westminster Abbey, where Britain’s monarchs are installed, the man who once said as a child that his life’s ambition was to be “world king” finally got the next best thing our politics can offer.

With the buzz of the TV helicopters overhead competing with the loudhailers of protestors outside, Boris Johnson’s elevation to the position of Tory leader certainly felt like a noisily contested coronation.

A day before Her Majesty was due to formally make him prime minister at Buckingham Palace, the concrete-and-glass QEII conference centre was the more prosaic backdrop as the worst kept secret in Westminster was confirmed.

The prince over the water for so long (including eight years as London Mayor, literally on the other side of the Thames), Johnson duly grabbed the Conservative crown with the breathless bravado that is his trademark.

But the QEII itself is a reminder that party leaders can be deeply divisive. Just four years ago, Jeremy Corbyn’s first election was announced in the same conference hall, to chants inside and outside of ‘Jez We Can’.

And it was here that Tony Blair was grilled for the Iraq Inquiry, proof that even prime ministers with huge majorities, let alone the wafer-thin one Johnson will inherit, can fall out of favour.

On Tuesday, as anti-Brexit campaigners unleashed the megaphone cry of ‘Bollocks to Boris!’, English Morris dancers staged a surreal protest of their own (they don’t want May Day’s date moved next year). Nearby, a lone evangelical preacher declared “The Conservative party is anti-Christian and anti-Jesus”.

Inside the conference centre, the Boris faithful were praying at the altar of Brexit and the party leadership video took no chances.

Ticking off previous leaders it name-checked blink-and-you-miss-them figures such as Alec Douglas Home, but signally airbrushed from history Ted Heath. Heath’s sin was of course to take the UK into the European Economic Community in the 1970s.

Just as Labour’s leadership video four years ago mentioned Clem Attlee and John Smith, but not Blair and Brown, it seemed the organisers were worried what too much booing would look like on live TV.

After Johnson’s victory was confirmed, with 66% of the vote to Jeremy Hunt’s 33%, he proceeded to deliver a short speech that was so devoid of content it made Theresa May look like Cicero.

PA Wire/PA Images

Containing fewer words (883) and apparently less effort than his weekly Telegraph column, he launched into a tortuous joke about the acronym ‘Dude’ - ‘deliver’ (Brexit), ‘unite’ (the party and nation), ‘defeat’ (Corbyn) and ‘energise’ the country - that felt like a fringe meeting leftover.

There was a stab at something more substantial with a nicely crafted line about the Tory party history of balancing “the jostling sets of instincts in the human heart” - to encourage individual aspiration while helping the poorest.

That was meant to be a segue into the ‘noble’ rival causes of the Remain and Leave campaigns, but it jarred with his ‘do-or-die’ pledge to get Britain out of the EU with or without a deal in October.

With a chunk of the audience Jeremy Hunt supporters, his usual call-and-response style fell flat too. To his question “do you feel daunted [by Brexit]?” there was just silence in reply.

One cabinet minister privately pointed to the rough road ahead. “If we had a majority of 80, you could do ‘winner takes all’. He can’t do that. The margin of that victory today doesn’t matter. The numbers in parliament matter.”

But for Johnson fans the performance was the tonic they needed. Many supportive MPs pointed out the real test would be his main speech from the steps of Downing Street on Wednesday.

On leaving the QEII centre, Johnson returned to the campaign HQ where he has slowly been building his No.10 team in recent days, picking his key Brexit negotiator (a civil servant called David Frost) and mapping out his ministerial reshuffle.

The resignations of Alan Duncan and Anne Milton, as well as the expected departures of big names like Philip Hammond and David Gauke, are seen by his team as a boon.  “It saves us all that time wasted on having to personally fire people,” one key ally said. “We get on with the hiring instead.”

As part of a drip-feed approach to some appointments, new chief whip Mark Spencer, a former Remainer who managed the Brexit team bench, was revealed. Further key names were set to be pre-announced before his big day.

After a brief trip to rally the troops in Conservative campaigns HQ, Johnson was driven into parliament, the real crucible for the battles ahead, for his first ever meeting of the backbench 1922 Committee as leader.

In a tantalising clue to who the next Chancellor may be, Sajid Javid arrived at Johnson’s side before he was greeted by a deafening banging of desks like a rolling summer thunder.

Inside committee room 14, he cracked some jokes and won applause as he rammed home October 31 as the deadline for Brexit.

There was a moment of tension when defence minister, Bournemouth MP and no-deal critic Tobias Ellwood got up with a deliberately pregnant pause. “Sir...” he said. “...can we have the party conference back in Bournemouth?” The relief was palpable amid the guffaws.

But it was all too much for one veteran backbencher Keith Simpson, who last week rebelled against his party for the first time in 22 years to avoid a Johnson suspension of parliament.

PA Archive/PA Images
Johnson on a zipwire during the 2012 Olympic games in London

“The circus has come to town. I couldn’t stand any more of it,” Simpson said. “There’s the high wire acts, there’s the beauty queen, the Trussette. It was classically Boris, very funny.

“You have to pinch yourself, people kept calling him, he’s the Prime Minister Elect. There’s a tremendous crisis we are facing on every front and I don’t know whether Boris will be able to deal with it.”

Johnson’s allies, new and old, former leadership contenders and none, had packed the room. “They were all sitting in the body of the Kirk [church], trying to look like they are not ambitious little shits,” Simpson said.

Within the meeting, Johnson was asked if he would scrap the HS2 rail project but he only committed to a ‘review’ of infrastructure by an engineer who worked on Hong Kong airport.

A Cornish MP asked if their local plans for a ‘spaceport’ would get more help, to which Johnson replied that he needed all the help he could get to “send Corbyn into space”.

The joke that produced most laughs came when he riffed on the George Bush blunder that “the thing that’s wrong with the French is they have no word for entrepreneur”. He then pointed at Jeremy Hunt, declaring “and we will back entrepreneurs!”

Afterwards, arch Brexiteers said they loved it. Steve Baker, who had led efforts to get the required letters for a leadership vote against May, said: “This was the Conservative party slamming together in unity.”

Nicky Morgan, tipped for a cabinet return, said Johnson gave “detailed answers, serious answers” as well as the jokes. “It was vintage Boris, with lots of love for Jeremy Hunt. He said he didn’t want an early election.”

One cabinet minister added: “He just put the smile back on the party’s face.”

“The clouds have lifted,” said Brexiteer Andrea Jenkyns as she walked down the committee corridor.  “The clowns have lifted?” asked one reporter, only half-joking.

Clown protestor near Parliament

Outside parliament, the protestors gathered once more and as if on cue, one man was dressed as Johnson in a clownsuit, carrying a cardboard sign that read “My Secret Detailed Plan: positive thinking, more positive thinking, f*ck business, the moon on a stick”.

Just then the news broke that Donald Trump had made a speech praising Johnson. “He’s tough and he’s smart. They’re saying Britain Trump. They call him Britain Trump.”  He then launched into even more lavish praise for Nigel Farage.

For Johnson critics inside and outside the Tory party, Trump’s words perhaps conjured up memories of the ‘creepy killer clown’ craze that swept the US and then came to the UK.

Or as the song put it, ‘send in the clowns/don’t bother they’re here’.