Published on 30 Sep 2014

Boris vs Theresa: why their #cpc14 speeches were really leadership hustings

The morning session at Tory conference was dominated by leadership hustings. Theresa May made her bid for the top job. It was Merkel meets Margaret. It was the best speech I’ve seen her give and it was strengthened by a counter-intuitive touch: the self-proclaimed hardliner kicking off with a pledge to turn round the racial bias in stop and search.

Before Boris Johnson came on the stage he was built up by a parliamentary candidate giving a gushing introduction that would embarrass just about anyone … but not Boris Johnson. He made David Cameron turn red alluding to the “purring monarch” gaffe by the PM. But aside from that Mr Johnson was loyalty itself.

No accident that. Just as Theresa May’s address was painstakingly constructed to show prime ministerial or leadership qualities, so Boris Johnson’s loyal supporters have been making sure his pre-election conference address was loyal and his sartorial appearance smarter than usual. Both camps have a small cadre of parliamentary acolytes who hope their candidate will succeed David Cameron. Both sides are quietly trying to recruit more to their side.

There is the small matter of there being no vacancy but that never stopped an ambitious frontline politician with an eye on the main prize.

Theresa May’s plans to restrict the free speech of radical Islamist extremists has come in for some critical reaction. One former senior No. 10 figure who witnessed the broadcasting ban on Sinn Fein spokespeople being dismantled under John Major said it had proved chaotic and ridiculous.

The man who was attorney general until July, Dominic Grieve, said he had grave concerns about trying to silence people whose words were offensive but didn’t constitute crimes under current law. He also worried about a Dutch auction of hardline policies ahead of the general election. David Davis had similar concerns and said such legislation would struggle to get through parliament.

Boris tried to raise morale in the hall joking at Ukip’s expense. But the Ukip leader Nigel Farage has tormented this gathering with his threat of more defections. The current leadership plan is to delay the Rochester by-election until December.

They worry a by-election any sooner would risk giving Ukip even more momentum if they win Clacton and come second to Labour in Heywood. They hope a firebreak of a few weeks could dispel that momentum and allow them to ingrain negative thoughts about Mark Reckless in his electorate’s minds.

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