Michael Deacon watches Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, address the annual CBI conference of business leaders.
No matter what time of the day he delivers it, every Boris Johnson speech is an after-dinner speech. The routine is simultaneously chaotic and polished. Jokes, anecdotes, mock-boasting, mock-self-deprecation. As he speaks, you can practically hear his audience’s ties loosen.
Today in London he addressed the CBI conference of business leaders. It was only 2.30 in the afternoon, yet from the moment the Mayor started talking you could sense the auditorium relaxing, as if they’d just put away three hearty courses and a drop of first-class brandy. (They hadn’t; lunch had in fact consisted of dainty green salads in coy little bowls, followed, presumably in the interests of dietary balance, by a glistening spread of sickly-looking tarts and pastries.)
“Thank you, everybody!” began Boris, peering out from beneath the upturned colander of spaghetti otherwise known as his hair. “I’m thrilled and indeed delighted to be in the graveyard slot after lunch… Although we seem to have generated a turn-out more respectable than we saw in the entire PCC elections…”
Delegates chortled happily. The PCC joke was typical Boris, not simply because it was amusing but because it was at the expense of something politicians are supposed to take seriously.
Of course, since a) he isn’t an MP, and b) there were no PCC elections in London, it was a joke Boris could easily get away with. But there was more to it than that. Audiences love it when Boris does that type of gag, because it makes them feel as if he’s on their side – that he’s one of them, rather than part of some remote and robotic political elite. A joke like that is a kind of verbal wink, a way of saying, “I think this is all just as absurd as you do.” It’s the same with his vocabulary. (Today’s highlights: zephyr, Schlosses, protean, philoprogenitive.)
Gaily he burbled through a list of the goods and services that Britain – well, mainly London – offered the world. Divorce lawyers, for example. “I have no shame whatever in saying to the injured spouses of the world’s billionaires: ‘If you want to take him to the cleaners, darling, take him to the cleaners in London!’”
The capital, he went on, exported bicycles to Holland, mosquito repellent to Brazil, tea to China, Piers Morgan to America. It even had more Michelin-starred restaurants than Paris. “Yes! A fact too good to check!”
If, like a spoilsport, you do indeed check, you will of course find that Paris has comfortably more Michelin-starred restaurants than London. But to a Boris audience, mere accuracy is beside the point. He could declare that London offers the world’s hottest beaches and no rain for 11 months of the year, and everyone would cheer all the more loudly.
He did make a couple of more serious points. It was time to end the “rhetoric of austerity”; also, stricter immigration controls would be “a barrier to growth”. Two things Number 10 didn’t want to hear. Whether his audience wanted to hear them, I’m not sure. I suspect they mainly just wanted to hear him say “Schlosses” again.