Rich in puns, light on policy: key motifs in Boris Johnson’s speech

From Greek mythology to Michael Gove’s dancing, PM’s final speech ranged from personal to obscure

Boris Johnson’s Conservative party conference speech might have been notably light in policy, but it featured plenty of other themes, including the personal, the fairly aggressive and the downright obscure. Here are some.

Attacks on Labour

Beginning with an early swipe at “the corduroyed communist cosmonaut” of Jeremy Corbyn, Johnson variously described Keir Starmer as “a seriously rattled bus conductor”, “Captain Hindsight” and “the skipper of a cruise liner that has been captured by Somali pirates”.

Greek mythology

A staple of Johnson’s speeches. When he was very ill with Covid, he said, NHS nurses “pulled my chestnuts out of the Tartarean pit”. Tartarus was the underworld abyss, beneath even hades.

Margaret Thatcher

In an arguably creative citation of Thatcher’s views, Johnson argued that she too would have raised taxes after Covid, and not “ignored this meteorite that has just crashed through the public finances”.

A main conference message

Amid the alliteration and linguistic chaos, Johnson found time to reiterate his party’s key idea for the party conference: that the current supply chain crisis is a necessary transition towards a higher skill, higher pay economy. This included a swipe at companies for not investing in areas such as better facilities for truck drivers, bringing perhaps the first prime ministerial reference to people having to “urinate in the bushes”.

Poetry – and Stoke Poges

While Keir Starmer’s conference speech referenced Auden, Johnson cited Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, which is associated with Stoke Poges. The Buckinghamshire village then had three more references, connected to levelling up.

Disparaging references to north London

Another favourite Johnson motif, including the arguably mythical idea that local schools favour races in which pupils do not win, tolerance for drugs in “the powder rooms of the north London dinner parties” and “lefty Islington lawyers”. Johnson spent a number of years living in Islington, where his then-wife was a lawyer.

Bad puns

Much of this was based around the Tories’ “build back better” slogan. Referring to nature and wildlife initiatives, Johnson pledged to “build back beaver”, and to the renewal of UK beef imports to the US, to “build back burger”.

Culture wars

Late in the speech, and starting with a defence of his beloved Winston Churchill, Johnson continued: “This isn’t just a joke, they really do want to rewrite our national story. We really are at risk of a kind of know-nothing cancel culture, know-nothing iconoclasm.”

Ubiquitous Michael Gove nightclub reference

Describing the post-Covid reopening of the hospitality industry, Johnson said he “sent top government representatives to our sweatiest boîtes de nuit to show that anyone could dance perfectly safely”– a reference to Gove’s recent antics in Aberdeen.


Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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