The big occasion at Conservative party conference, beyond question, was the Boris speech. The queues for it really were impressively epic, notable even further at a conference in which the hall had mostly been half-full at best for other speeches. This has led to a media narrative that Boris is the next leader in waiting, adored by the faithful.
Except if you were here in Birmingham, that’s not how it felt at all. A lot of Tory members were really annoyed at the way Boris has behaved this past week (the field of wheat stunt in particular) and thought that the speech was empty rhetoric, as per usual. One thing that tends to get underrated in terms of what matters to Tory members is loyalty. One of the main reasons why the Conservative party is the most successful political organisation in the history of democracy is that loyalty to the party and the current leadership, whatever their faults, is very highly valued. It is for this reason that he who wields the sword never gets to wear the Tory crown: even if they want rid of a leader, the Conservatives never prize the poor fool who ends up sticking the knife in. Which Boris is trying to avoid looking like and failing spectacularly.
It was interesting to note at the Boris speech how many people there were not wearing Tory membership passes, but rather press, exhibitor and other non-member ones. The Boris show was a spectacle, and everyone wanted to see it. Including some members who would never vote for him in a million years in a leadership contest. This is what is getting underplayed here: Boris is a showman, a comedian. People want to hear him speak because he is an entertaining speaker, not necessarily because they think he’d make anything like a decent prime minister.
In the bar on the last night of conference, there was a lot of either making fun of Boris and his antics – or downright hostility to them. I didn’t really hear any defence of Boris from Tory members. Some of them on the right of the party seem to hope that Boris pushes May out so that someone else more Brexity can lead the party, preferably quite soon – someone other than Boris who they a). don’t trust and b). think is a clownish lightweight. But he would be a good swordsman who is dispatched and mostly forgotten after he does the deed.
The line for a long time in Westminster has been that Boris would have a hard time getting to the final two because of antipathy towards him within the Conservative parliamentary party. But I think that even if he got that far, the membership would not vote for him in the end.