Last modified on Sun 10 Oct 2021 10.37 BST
The Conservative & Unionist party is no more. It has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its maker. It’s kicked the bucket, shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-party.
It has been replaced by the Boriservative & Johnsonist party. This is the conclusion I draw after observing the worshippers at the Borisfest in Manchester. It was all about him. Even when he wasn’t visible, he was omnipresent. He was there in the devoted eyes of the activists prepared to queue from six in the morning to secure a seat for the triumph of the Boris that concluded proceedings. He was there in the twitchy eyes of ministers who referred to him as “the boss” or “the king” even when they weren’t on camera. The tone was set on the opening day by Oliver Dowden, not so much the party chairman as the prime minister’s representative on Earth. “We are all just bit players,” said Mr Dowden, telling everyone else that they were irrelevant, before referring to the principal player as “our prize stallion, our rampaging rhino”. Animal worship has been a feature of religions since primitive times. In Mr Dowden’s imagining, the divinity that is Boris is a composite super-beast with (I’m guessing a bit here) the horn, hide and bulk of a rhino and the mane, legs and possibly another appendage of a stallion.
The Boris cult involves human sacrifice. We were witnesses to the humiliating abasement of his cabinet colleagues, the mere mortals who supposedly run important departments. I’ve been present at Tory conferences since the mid-1980s. The leader has always been top of the bill, but there were opportunities for the supporting acts to share the spotlight. Margaret Thatcher had a god-like status with her party when she was at her zenith. Even then, senior figures in her government were allowed to deliver substantial speeches from the main stage so that they had a chance to make their mark and the party could assess who might be its rising stars. No one knows better than Mr Johnson that the conference platform can be exploited to further leadership ambitions. There is room for only one tall poppy in his government. So the cabinet were ruthlessly levelled down.
The main stage, a large arena custom-built for the great entertainer, was exclusively reserved for the leader’s performance. Those of the cabinet who were allowed to speak – many of them weren’t even given that courtesy – were permitted only a truncated time in a small auditorium with awful acoustics. The chancellor of the exchequer got just 19 minutes and the foreign secretary less than 12 minutes. Rishi Sunak had to battle against Tannoy announcements and noise from the adjoining exhibition hall. Can you imagine Conservative chancellors of the past – Ken Clarke, say, or Nigel Lawson – putting up with such demeaning treatment? Put up with it Mr Sunak and the rest of them had to, because nothing was going to be allowed to distract from the only act that counted. The prime minister’s speech was a breathless and jumbled hurtle through slogans, wordplay, boasts, metaphors and jokes, jokes and more jokes. Some of them were very good, but never before have I heard a leader’s speech in which virtually every other sentence was a punchline in search of a guffaw.
One of Mr Johnson’s tricks is to winkingly hint to his audience that he knows that his act is preposterous. He is such a cynic that he mocked his own conference slogan even though it expressed what is supposed to be his big idea. After a passage about rewilding, he shouted: “Build Back Beaver”. Trade with the US was rendered: “Build Back Burger”. Those looking for a philosophical thread or a coherent argument were left disappointed. As were those who might have expected to hear how the prime minister intends to address the many problems pressing in on Britain. You would not know that there are queues for petrol, bare supermarket shelves, surging energy prices, welfare cuts and looming tax rises from his breezy boosterism. It is in the nature of cults that they are detached from reality. I asked one senior Tory whether he was any the wiser about what Johnsonism amounted to. He sighed: “Surely we have got to the point where we realise there isn’t such a thing as Johnsonism. It is whatever works for him on the day.”
The Conservative party used to have a set of values and a body of convictions. These evolved in response to changing times and electoral needs, but they always had some cohesion. The Boris cult is not like that at all. It revolves around a capricious character with few deep beliefs and no fixed ideological abode. When he adopts positions, it is not in the service of any higher purpose than following his instincts, quenching his appetites and promoting his interests as he perceives them from one day to the next. The only goal to which he is consistently committed is keeping himself popular and in power.
There are consequences from putting a party in such thrall to one mercurial personality. The American Republicans discovered that when their party fell into the hands of Donald Trump, who proceeded to trash many of their previously cherished principles. Something similar, if not yet quite so dramatic, is happening to the Conservatives. They used to be the party of business and farmers. If they were anything, they were that. Not any more. Mr Johnson flippantly shrugs at the travails of farmers and attacks business because he thinks that is to his advantage at this particular time.
The shortages of essential workers and goods that are disrupting daily life might just have something to do with the severity of the rupture with the EU. But that can’t be acknowledged for it would be to concede that the prophet of Brexit is fallible. So business must be ferociously blamed for unfilled jobs, paralysed supply chains and the threat of a Christmas without turkeys.
Many Conservative MPs I spoke to in Manchester expressed their bemusement that, as one of them put it, “we lurch from crisis to crisis while serenely maintaining a poll lead”. For adherents of the Boris cult that is not a paradox. It is a confirmation of their belief. Such is his sorcery, he can levitate over any calamity.
Except he can’t. Not forever. Something we know about cults is that they tend to end badly. We cannot say with certainty when this one will collapse under the weight of its contradictions, but we can collect clues about why it will do so eventually. Some were to be found in Manchester.
While the adulation of the activists who cheered his speech looked genuine, many of the MPs present were faking it. They still think of themselves as representatives of the Conservative party, not devotees of the Johnson Church of Borisology. The typical Tory MP came into politics believing in low taxes, restrained public spending, free markets, a stable society and a modest state. They are disoriented, when they are not horrified, to find that they are members of a government that is presiding over chaos, raising taxes, bashing business and encouraging wage inflation while having no serious plan for mitigating the disruption, nurturing economic growth or improving productivity.
Talking about the tax hikes being imposed on both employers and employees, one former Tory cabinet minister observed to me: “Business is unhappy with them. Backbenchers are unhappy with them. Party donors are unhappy with them.” They are grimacing and bearing it at the moment, because the Tories are ahead in the polls and many continue to think that Mr Johnson has a special connection with the electorate that no one else can match. The conviction that he is a winner is the foundational belief of the cult. He was the frontman of a Brexit campaign that succeeded when it was expected to fail. He then secured the best parliamentary majority for the Tories in more than 30 years. His continuing defiance of political gravity encourages faith that he will win again next time. One Conservative MP told me confidently: “Boris is going to have at least eight years as prime minister.”
No one can know that for sure. Public patience will wear thin and then snap. In furtive corners of the conference, Tory MPs could be found debating whether the bubble will burst before or after the next election. The public will turn against him one day, as they do on all leaders, and then his MPs will do the same. For the cult worships only an extremely flawed parcel of mortal flesh who is much better at cracking jokes than he is at cracking governing.
Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer