I’ve always thought that Boris Johnson likes to imagine himself as some sort of much-loved national treasure: Winnie the Pooh, perhaps.
Sadly, he lacks Pooh’s belief in old-fashioned loyalty; his ability to follow through on a plan (albeit with the help of a motley crew of rag-tag supporters); and the devastating socio/philosophical insights which make Pooh worth listening to all these years later. So it was no particular surprise that Boris’s performance (and it’s always a performance, of course) at the DUP’s conference was less Winnie and more wind and knowing winks.
At one of the most important moments for ‘Ulster’ unionism since the Third Home Rule Crisis, a moment when we might have expected some considered reflection and historical overview (he is an enthusiastic and talented historian), Boris gave us Star Wars lightsabers, bendy buses, a joke about the Titanic and another reference to bendy buses in Malta jack-knifing and catching fire. The rest was a rehash and reheating of points he has been making for the past 18 months.
He was a distraction on Saturday and the audience clearly enjoyed the distraction. But I’m not sure how much help he can be to them. He hasn’t been able to unseat Theresa May. He was unable to swing a majority of his cabinet colleagues round to his way of thinking. He and his friends in the European Reform Group (of which Jacob Rees-Mogg is the leading spokesman) have failed to gather a majority of Conservative MPs around their own alternative to the prime minister’s strategy. After weeks of claiming that they were on the cusp of forcing a vote of confidence in Mrs May (and Johnson used his Daily Telegraph column and other platforms to pummel her relentlessly and mercilessly) they finally had to admit that they were ‘considerably short’ of the 48 letters they required.
What he didn’t do - and the DUP will have been grateful he didn’t - was say anything interesting enough or controversial enough to overshadow what Arlene Foster said in her speech. Hers, of course, was always going to be a difficult speech. There’s still no Assembly. The party feels betrayed by May. RHI has been an embarrassing nightmare (with the worst, the final report, still to come). The party has also been discomfited by what an MLA described to me as, ‘a few other personal problems which were mightily enjoyed by the media and our enemies in the past year’.
All of which explains why she was neither bullish nor belligerent. There were no attacks on the UUP. There were no attacks on Sinn Fein: indeed she stressed the need for the “full involvement of all parties capable of holding ministerial office, and want their contribution considered and acted upon, on its merits”. She addressed, without actually mentioning it, the breakdown of talks last February over the Irish language: “We must be conscious that there is a lack of cultural security primarily for unionists, but also for others. We need a new Cultural Deal for everyone in Northern Ireland that respects difference and fosters understanding.” That phrase, Cultural Deal, is likely to become one of the key phrases in any new talks process (due to start again in January), so let’s hope the DUP leadership prepares its grassroots better than it did a year ago.
Much was made of Foster’s supposed mea culpa: “Today as leader of the party I apologise. As a party we are, deeply, deeply sorry for the mistakes we made, and for the things we got wrong during that period. I know I speak for many when I say that over the course of the last twelve months there have been a number of other areas where behaviour in our ranks has not matched the standards expected of people holding public office.”
At the end of her speech two MLAs asked me the same question: “Has she done enough to save her job?” They asked the question because they know, as does she, that there are growing numbers who wouldn’t lift a finger to help, or raise a voice to persuade her otherwise, if she was to suggest standing aside. They will know, as does she, that the structures for a coup are already in place.
So, to answer their question. What she said wasn’t, in fact, a mea culpa; which is a formal, public acknowledgment of personal fault or error. She was apologising on behalf of the party. She was not apologising to the party. She was not apologising to the people of Northern Ireland. She was not apologising for her own role. She was not apologising in her personal capacity as leader. She spoke too much of ‘we’ and ‘our’ when what was really required was ‘me’ and ‘I’. It reminded me too much of a line during her RHI evidence, when, speaking of a former special adviser, she said she was ‘accountable’ for him, but not ‘responsible’ for him.
Her leadership career hangs by a thread. She will not survive if the final Brexit deal goes belly-up for the DUP. She will not survive the breakdown of yet another talks process; not least because growing numbers of her MLA colleagues want the Assembly up and running before an election becomes unavoidable. She will not survive a ‘bad’ RHI report. She will not survive bad council elections, due in a few months’ time. The fact that there was so little of substance in her speech; so little bite; so little fight; and so little good news to report is an indication of just how weak she is. She will have noted, and a few people mentioned it to me, that the applause for Nigel Dodds was both louder and more genuine.
I’ve mentioned before that she and Mrs May are in almost identical positions when it comes to holding onto their jobs. They both need everything to go right. In the next few weeks (although Foster has more wriggle-room re time) almost anything could go fatally wrong for them. It’s not a good position for any leader to find themselves; particularly at a key moment in UK history and in the history of their own parties.