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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Analysis -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Ireland

© PressReader. All rights reserved.