Did I just meet the next prime minster of Britain?
Boris Johnson had most of the 3,000-strong crowd laughing, applauding and hanging on his every word, writes Niamh Horan
YOU’VE probably read a lot over the past few days about Boris Johnson’s appearance at the Pendulum Summit.
Mainly, I presume, his garrotting at the hands of RTE presenter Bryan Dobson.
But what you most likely didn’t read about, because it isn’t popular and doesn’t fit in with mainstream media’s views on Johnson or Brexit, was the overwhelmingly positive reception he received at Dublin’s Convention Centre.
Shortly before the former British Foreign Secretary took to the stage, host Sile Seoige — clearly sensing the tension in the auditorium — told the audience to take a deep breath and let go of their preconceptions. But within minutes, Johnson had the majority of the 3,000-strong crowd interested, engaged, laughing and even applauding to the beat of his words.
His address detailed his political philosophies and recipe for success, and he opened by asking people who they felt was the real hero of the movie Jaws.
When someone shouted out that the hero was ‘the shark’, he caused much merriment by quipping that it was easy to see we were in a room full of business people. But he went on to explain that the hero was in fact the island’s mayor. Because, he explained, this was the man who kept the island operating and tourists coming to the shops and businesses by remaining level-headed in the face of fear. The fictional mayor knew, statistically speaking, that the chances of any of his constituents being eaten by a carnivorous carcharodon was highly unlikely — in comparison to the untold damage a complete shutdown would do to their tiny island.
And so, for the next 20 minutes, he delivered what can only be described as a masterclass in political speaking. He launched one story after the next full of vivid, colourful and engaging real-life examples of the need for a cool head and clear thinking in the midst of widespread panic.
He told the audience about the time he was asked as Mayor of London to invest in expensive vaccines following reports of an outbreak of Sars, Ebola and Indian flu, despite the fact that people had more chance of “being decapitated by a flying Frisbee” than they had of succumbing to the diseases. He spoke about another occasion, in the run-up to London’s Olympic Games, when he was approached by officials with a request to buy 60,000 Paca-Macs [raincoats] so that invited kings, queens and international VIPs would not find themselves sitting in the stadium like drowned rats. A daily cyclist in the city of London, Johnson knew the most likely forecast on the main opening night would be ‘a Scottish mist’ at worst. His officials retorted “on your head be it” but his predictions proved right and saved the taxpayers millions.
Then there was the time he was asked not to encourage more people to cycle around London for fear of the risk it would pose to health and safety. Instead he pressed ahead and the numbers sky-rocketed. A decision which led to a reduction in road fatalities because motorists came to understand that cyclists “were just a fact of life”.
In another example, he spoke of the 2015 Metrojet terrorist bombing in which a flight from Egypt exploded in mid-air, resulting in the deaths of 224 people, most of whom were tourists. He argued that Britain’s decision to suspend flights thereafter made no statistical sense.
First, he said, Sinai airport was safer than many other airports regularly used by British flights. Secondly, he said, the massive damage the UK’s tourist ban would cause in Sharm-El-Sheikh would lead to the kind of wide-scale unemployment that makes it easy to radicalise young men and covert them into terrorists.
All of this, he said, was madness when the number of deaths caused by tourist aviation terrorist incidents last year stood at a grand total of zero, while thousands of tourists are killed every year in car crashes abroad. “And yet no one in their right mind would say that we should ban people from driving cars.”
The engaging narratives led him to his ultimate leitmotif: that the mainstream media, lobbyists and politicians have an overwhelming tendency to take part in mass panic, when it is his philosophy to try to remain cool in the face of such things.
And although much of his speech was delivered in his trademark charming, bumbling style, he turned deadly serious at his key moment: “It will always be in some people’s interest to play it safe and therefore forego terrific opportunities,” he boomed.
“Without risk, there can be no reward and it’s the ability to take a gamble on life’s uncertain outcomes that is the very start of every human achievement.”
For all of Dobson’s hard-hitting questions that followed, his mountain of research and well-versed statistics couldn’t compete when it came to the question of who won over the audience.
Dobbo’s numbercrunching and earnest tone didn’t engage the audience one ounce as much as Johnson’s rousing speech.
I noted quite a few people leaving during the high-brow Q&A but not one backside budged when Johnson addressed the audience.
No wonder, in an ailing industry, the Daily Telegraph is said to pay Johnson £275,000 a year for his weekly column that takes him just 10 hours a month to write. Like it or not, when Boris speaks, people lap it up.
Afterwards, I met him backstage, “Am I talking to the next prime minister of Britain?” I ask. “Oh, no, no,” he replied, bashfully.
But only a fool would write off this outstanding orator just yet.
‘It will always be in some people’s interest to play it safe’
LEADER-IN-WAITING: Guest speaker Boris Johnson on the main stage at the Pendulum Summit