Maiden Voyages: Boris Johnson
In his occasional series, Patrick Kidd looks at maiden speeches of note.
It is a small irony that the maiden speech, given exactly 20 years ago, of a politician who made his reputation performing in front of TV cameras should have come when there was a technical fault in the control room at Millbank. The only recording of Boris Johnson’s Commons debut exists in wide angle from a camera beyond the Sergeant at Arms, its leading man a distant figure in the fourth row.
You can easily tell who it is, though, despite there not being a moment of “All right, Mr Deputy Speaker, I’m ready for my close-up”. The constant fumbling with his left pocket, a hallmark today, repeatedly dipping his hand in and out as if to check that some urchin hasn’t swiped his wallet, gives it away as much as the messy blond thatch.
Positioned in front, like a defensive wall, are two fellow Etonians and members of the Class of 2001 in Hugo Swire, whose own maiden speech comes half an hour later, and Cameron Minor (whatever happened to him?). Another Buller boy, George Osborne, sits a few seats away. These Stars of Tomorrow are there to provide the laughter track for the man who would be World King.
Johnson explains that he is a One Nation Tory, who wants to 'get the state off people’s backs'
Or indeed, Lion King, since Johnson begins his speech by paying tribute to his predecessor as MP for Henley and comparing himself to the cub in the Disney film. “I approach this moment with much the same sense of self-doubt as Simba,” Johnson says, describing Michael Heseltine as the Mufasa of the Oxfordshire jungle in whose pawprints he is not yet fit to tread. “I have no arboretum, merely a sort of lop-sided laurel,” he says. “I struggle to run one magazine, whereas Michael told me that at the last count he had 267.”
The bulk of the speech then runs like one of his Telegraph columns, taking us on a colourful drive round his constituency, using each stop to make a point about the perils facing the countryside, the subject of this opposition day debate. He starts at junction six of the M40 – “the Khyber Pass of the Chilterns” – and goes past the Wittenham clumps, “which were famously painted by Constable,” and the towers of Didcot power station, “which were not,” to the fish and chip shop in Watlington, whose cottage hospital has closed.
From there he heads to Thame, saying that if you want to make that journey by bus it has to be on a Tuesday and you can only come back on Saturdays, where the farmers’ market has been affected by the foot and mouth crisis. He takes us for a pint of Brakspear’s in Ewelme and makes a call for tax breaks for beer, which draws the loudest laugh and even a slap of the thigh from Cameron Minor for lamenting that the Chancellor hadn’t come to hear him (Simba’s self-doubt has vanished). Thus fortified, Johnson wobbles on through villages with closing post offices and high house prices to end his journey with a paean to the Henley regatta. As a structural device it works nicely and he is generously praised by Labour’s Helen Brinton, who says he will “uphold the tradition of dashing blonds in the House”.
The 11-minute speech then ends with a change of tone and a piece of personal philosophy. Johnson explains that he is a One Nation Tory, who wants to “get the state off people’s backs”, work with human nature and build a closer relationship between the countryside and the cities. It earns a round of “hyah hyah hyahs” from the choir of the OE Society. Is this the real Johnson speaking, though, or is that the one who later flippantly told an interviewer that he became an MP “because they don’t put up statues to journalists”?
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