Should anyone be wondering about the level of adulation – something close to a personality cult – surrounding Boris Johnson at this year’s Conservative conference, a brief glance around the venue on Wednesday morning would have dispelled any doubts.
While a main auditorium barely a third full heard a panel discussion about the vaccine rollout, almost the entire rest of the conference centre was filled by something else: a snaking queue for the prime minister’s speech.
At the very front, a prized spot which involved her getting to the Manchester Central convention centre at around 6.30am, a full five hours before Johnson’s speech, was Alla Hennessy, a Tory activist from Kensington and Chelsea in London.
“Because I admire this amazing prime minister,” Hennessy said, when asked why she had shown such dedication. The 60-year-old theatre worker said she had come to the UK from Romania in 2013, had “always loved” the Conservatives, but had a particular soft spot for Johnson: “I have come to congratulate him for what he has done. I would love to talk to him, even for five seconds.”
Such is the central role for Johnson at a largely policy-free conference, that he has his own, bespoke arena for his speech, while his ministers were generally restricted to brief speeches inside the small, acoustically-challenged auditorium.
Specially built in a separate part of the convention centre, and kept out of sight until his address, Johnson’s arena allows him to speak to an audience almost entirely in the round.
Next in the queue for the spectacle were Melissa, an NHS staff member from Bristol, and Marie, a finance worker from Liverpool. Neither city is known for being Tory-friendly, and both wanted only their first names used, to avoid attracting online abuse.
“I get a lot of it,” said Melissa, wearing a “Tory scum” badge on her jacket. “Direct messages saying I should top myself.”
Both were also adherents to the call of Johnson. “I’m always uplifted by his speeches, because I love how positive he is,” Melissa said. “We’ve been through such an awful 18 months – we needed this.”
Marie agreed: “He’s liked by so many people, all different backgrounds. When people say it’s a personality cult, they’re just jealous.”
At the very back of the queue, a good few minutes’ walk around the venue, officials were already warning people they were unlikely to get in. But still they arrived.
Here, at least, were some signs of another Tory figure with an appeal for the faithful. “She loves Boris,” one activist said, indicating a friend, “but she loves Matt Hancock even more.” The friend bashfully concurred, but added: “Please don’t print my name. I’d never live it down.”