In the sweltering anteroom the air stank with the base essence of the Tory party. Iridescent beads of sweat gathered in the nape of Gavin Williamson’s neck. Andrew Bridgen’s top lip shimmered. The glabrescent head of Iain Duncan Smith shone like the bright bald baby in the sun above Teletubbyland.
This was the Tory party in survival mode, reduced to its basest instinct. Things were serious now. The Tory party had decided it must live, and so everything else must die. If shamelessness was a delicacy, this was the kind of stuff that’s so potent, so concentrated, it is brought out at the end of grand banquets and served in tiny spoons.
There was Steve Baker. He who had, not so long ago, banged his fist on a table at the “fools and knaves and cowards” who had voted for Theresa May’s withdrawal deal. He would, he said then, rather “bulldoze the House of Commons into the river” than vote for it.
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One of the cowards who did vote for it was Boris Johnson, of course. Boris Johnson still wants to leave the EU with a deal. Anyone vaguely concerned with reality knows that no deal that will pass through the House of Commons can be extracted from Brussels. If such a deal were available, it’s faintly possible Theresa May would have asked for it, as it would have saved her career and her reputation.
There is not a deal available that Steve Baker will vote for. And here Steve Baker was, throwing his full weight behind the Coward for Leader campaign.
There was Liz Truss, fresh from her troublesome morning on the Today programme, where because the coward from the Coward for Leader campaign had not managed to find the courage to appear himself, it had fallen to her to defend his abysmal personal, professional and political record.
Three years ago, I recall sitting with Liz Truss at a dinner. A Remainer, of course. Her view then was that Remain would win by 60 per cent. And now here she was, on the radio, leaping to the defence of the indefensible. She was asked about Johnson notoriously telling a parliamentary select committee two years ago that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been in Iran “training journalists”, a complete untruth that led to the Iranian regime extending her detention.
Truss’s view was that to even bring this up was to be an apologist for the Iranian regime, the ones who are “really responsible” for Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention. Later she would be on Politics Live, defending her own MP colleagues who had booed a journalist from Sky News while she sought to ask Boris Johnson a question.
All dignity dispensed with. All integrity gone. Survival is everything.
Of course, when the Grand Wizard eventually showed up, the curtain came back in an instant to reveal there was nothing there. But that won’t stop them now.
The most telling fact of the speech was how bad it was. Boris Johnson is on his best behaviour, but bad behaviour is all he is.
What was he offering exactly? There was something or other on “investing in the infrastructure this country so badly needs”. His current record on infrastructure is an utterly pointless cable car in east London that recent TfL research showed is used by precisely six actual commuters. It now serves alcohol in the evenings to try and stay afloat.
Then there are the rolling windowless sauna buses, and his decision to make himself chief executive of the London Legacy Development Corporation, and personally see through the execrable Olympic Stadium deal with West Ham United – the only aspect of London 2012 over which he had any executive control, and the only aspect considered to be an utter failure.
“Leeds is the largest European city not to have a metro system,” he said. If there is anyone within a 100-mile radius of that city who thinks prime minister Johnson will bequeath them a metro system, then I can tell you a few Tories who’d like the number of your dealer.
As he spoke, the sound of a single Brexit protester boomed through the open windows. “BOLLOCKS TO BORIS!” it shouted, at full volume, over and over again, minute after minute. It drew the wind from Johnson’s sails. Juvenile stuff, obviously. Politics should be conducted on a loftier plane than this. But at the same time, its target was the man who has done more than anyone to reduce the nation to its current execrable state.
It lent the occasion the feel of a Boris Johnson broadcast interview. The howling shouts from outside cutting through the noise, reducing the occasion to a joke. A jabbing jocular finger in auralised form, undermining everything.
He praised his own work, “tackling the London riots”. Those London riots that he “tackled” by refusing to return from his summer holidays driving a Winnebago round the Arizona desert, before eventually turning up, days after events were ended, to be looked in the eye and laughed at by riot victims on the streets in Battersea.
The serious register was beyond him then. It is even further beyond him now.
He allowed six questions at the end. He waved not a bat in the direction of any of them. When Sky News asked about his own newspaper column, likening Muslim women wearing the niqab to letterboxes, actual MPs brayed and booed.
Among them was Rishi Sunak, MP for Richmond, one of the party’s brightest young things, fully embracing his new life, here in this banana republic, undermining the free press.
Johnson spoke of a return to “liberal, one-nation conservatism”. The kind that wins elections from the centre. The kind that a chap called David Cameron won a Tory majority with three years ago, only to be destroyed by Boris Johnson.
And not just destroyed by Boris Johnson, destroyed by Jacob Rees-Mogg, Bill Cash, Bernard Jenkin, who couldn’t care a toss for one-nation conservatism. They’ve already got what they wanted. But they were here anyway, cheering along.
There’s only one idea involved here. Having driven their own voters into the arms of Nigel Farage, only Boris Johnson can get them back again. He has given the country a terrible venereal disease, and is now marketing himself as the cure.
Will it work? In the long run, who knows. In the short term, it’s looking good. It’s a post-shame world out there. It has found its messiah.