This cowardly speech reveals Boris Johnsons armoury is empty | Martin Kettle

A general election is now the PMs only hope of Getting Brexit Done, says Guardian columnist Martin Kettle

Boris Johnsons speech to the Conservative party conference was of a piece with his brief and tawdry prime ministership so far. The speech was a scam, an attempt to pretend that inconvenient realities can be wished out of existence by putting on a crowd-pleasing act. Yet these inconvenient realities include such things as the law of the land, the elected parliament, the European Union and the island of Ireland. Between them, these realities have enough clout to foil him.

Todays speech was hardly designed to reassure the undecided. Most prime ministers devote weeks to honing their message to their party conference. They probably take the occasion too seriously. Johnson is the precise opposite. He seemed to have cobbled together his speech over breakfast. There was no architecture or narrative to it.

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Considering that this is a man who, until a year ago, was Britains foreign secretary, there was amazingly little attempt to paint a vision of the 21st-century world and Brexit Britains place in it. The United States, China and Russia went almost without mention. There was a weird claim that the Tory party loves Europe, which unsurprisingly didnt go down well in the hall. But of climate crisis, migration pressures and terrorism was there barely a word.

There were, it should be noted, some slight grounds for thinking that Johnson is aware of at least some of the limits to which his denial of the real world can be stretched. Compared with the way in which his repainted Brexit proposals had been briefed on Tuesday, the version that Johnson served up in the Manchester conference hall was a few notches less noxious. There were no phrases like the overnight take it or leave it headlines. There wasnt an explicit claim that this was the UKs final offer. Even the lines about customs checks in Ireland could arguably be read as being a tad more emollient than the earlier leaked version. Eternal optimists may have been tempted to conclude that there was room here to make a deal.

Such nuances were more apparent than real. Yes, Johnson wants to get his post-Manchester follow-up conversations with to use that patronisingly hypocritical Johnsonian phrase his European friends and partners off on the right foot. Yes, he needs to be able to say he tried his best to make an 11th-hour effort to strike a deal. But this misses the main point. The reality, and the logic of his approach, is that there will surely not be a deal under Johnson. This so-called renegotiation is much more about winning the post-31 October blame game than about agreeing terms for withdrawal.

Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, attends the Conservative party conference in Manchester. Photograph: James Veysey/REX/Shutterstock

It is important to restate what Johnsons project consists of. The clue is in the Tory conference slogan emblazoned on the stage behind every platform speaker this week. Get Brexit Done means two things. It means deliver on the 2016 referendum vote. And it means deliver it in such a way that Nigel Farages Brexit party will wither and die on the electoral vine. Both have been umbilically linked since Johnson launched his leadership bid in the spring, and they still are today.

In Johnsons mind, Get Brexit Done has a third meaning, in which delivering Brexit provides an opportunity for progressive domestic initiatives. The speech duly contained some efforts of this kind, on health, towns and transport. But the Tory partys mind is not focused on such issues right now. Johnsons domestic pledges came and went without much response in the hall, although they may register more widely outside. The Tory partys sole reason for existence has become the effort to get Brexit done. But the party is noticeably apprehensive about even that. Many Tory activists still prefer a deal; also, as the pro-Brexit ConservativeHome commentator Paul Goodman observed yesterday, grassroots enthusiasm for Johnsons approach coexists with a strangely subdued anxiety about whether parliament and the courts will let it happen.

With good reason. Johnsons boast about leaving come what may may raise cheers at a conference. But in the end, it is bravado. Johnson is not in control of events. His new plans on the Irish border are mostly old ones. The EU has been cogent and consistent about both the preservation of the single market and upholding the peace process, and thus the backstop. Johnson, sucking up shamelessly to the DUP in Manchester, continues to act as if this does not matter. He will be lucky to get more than a polite hearing for plans that dont have the support of majority Irish opinion, north or south, and which do not deserve it. Nor is there a majority for any of this in parliament. The conference in Manchester does not change the reality that a majority of the House of Commons opposes no deal, which is now set in law under the Benn Act.

Parliament can stop no deal and so it should. Johnson can huff and puff about surrender bills and can taunt the opposition parties for blocking an early election. Yet as long as the opposition parties stick together and hold their nerve, it is they, and not Johnson, who are going to win by keeping the UK inside the EU at the end of the month.

Johnson is not a fool. But his was the speech of a coward. He is aware that parliament and, after the supreme courts ruling last month, the courts stand between him and the fulfilment of his Brexit strategy. He was happy to rubbish the former, claiming that parliament should be shut down, because he knows MPs are unpopular. He could afford to make a disrespectful joke about the Speaker, John Bercow, too. But Johnson steered well clear of rubbishing the courts in the same way. There were no disrespectful jokes about Brenda Hale, president of the supreme court. This is worth noting. It shows he is, rightly, afraid of the law.

All of this leaves Johnsons strategy with one serious hope: a general election that can remake parliament to his liking. The polls are looking better for the Tories, but they are not yet good enough. Tory hopes of gains from Labour are subverted by SNP and Lib Dem hopes of gains from the Tories. If the UK is still in the EU after 31 October, the Brexit party will be able to cry Tory betrayal. There will also be dozens of seats in which special factors will apply, including deselected MPs from both main parties running as independents. Amid this volatile multiparty electoral matrix, only a fool would be confident about the election result.

Johnson and his adviser Dominic Cummings have won a lot of grudging respect for the focus and confrontation of their strategy since July. Their problem, however, is that it may not work. The outcome is increasingly in the hands of their remain and pro-deal opponents. The lesson from Manchester is that Johnson is running out of options. He does not have a killer weapon in his armoury. If the opposition can stick together, Johnson can be beaten and his hard Brexit cause with him.

Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist

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