Boris Johnson has used his speech at the Conservative conference to pitch himself against his potential leadership rival George Osborne, sounding a strongly Eurosceptic note on immigration and urging protections for low earners affected by welfare cuts.
The London mayor positioned himself as a “one nation” Conservative, and put a heavy emphasis on claims that he has improved the lives of poorer people in the capital.
He also delivered a coded warning to Osborne, the chancellor, about the impact of tax credit cuts of up to £1,300 per family. He said: “We must ensure that as we reform welfare and we cut taxes that we protect the hardest working and lowest paid: shop workers, cleaners, the people who get up in the small hours or work through the night because they have dreams for what their families can achieve.”
The speech was laced with jokes that had Tory members at the Manchester conference hall in stitches.
But in another serious passage, Johnson appeared to challenge the EU’s freedom of movement rules, which allow citizens of member states to travel and settle freely throughout the bloc.
The mayor, who is also now an MP again, said he wanted complete control over immigration returned to the UK parliament. “It should be up to this parliament and this country – not to Jean-Claude Juncker [the European commission president] – to decide if too many people are coming here.”
This is a challenge to Cameron and Osborne, who is playing a major role in the EU renegotiations, as Brussels has made clear the free movement rules are non-negotiable.
In contrast to an earlier speech by another of his potential leadership rivals, Theresa May, Johnson – the “proud great grandson of a Turk who fled his country in fear of his life to Wimbledon for some reason” – said the UK does not object to immigration in itself, but it was about who decides and who is ultimately responsible.
“You will loosen the bonds that should unite society if people feel that their elected politicians have abdicated their ability to control those things that ought frankly to be within their power,” he said.
Johnson paid tribute to Cameron’s great prime ministerial qualities and revealed he sent him a text before the election, saying: “Mate, we’re going to win this thing.”
However, he did not refer to Osborne by name and delivered a dig at his department for stealing city hall policies, such as devolution of business rates and a national living wage.
At one point, he thanked the prime minister and chancellor for being supportive of the proposed Crossrail 2 project.
However, he then delivered a warning to Osborne that it would have to be given the go-ahead in order for the UK to be a nation of builders – the theme of the chancellor’s speech on Monday.
Osborne’s chances of succeeding the prime minister have seemed to increase since the election, after which he was made first secretary of state and given the job of deputising for Cameron at PMQs.
In contrast, Johnson has been relatively quiet over the summer, while he combines his parliamentary and mayoral duties.
His speech to the party conference, however, was a sign that he is still prepared to be politically mischievous and challenging to Downing Street.
He also got the best reception from the delegates, who appreciated his digs at colleagues and at the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as well as the anti-Tory protesters outside the conference hall whom he referred to as “crusties”.
“Will we surrender to the hard-left agitators – supported by Jeremy Corbyn – who believe in these tactics and want to divide this society? No.
“In fact, I drew only one conclusion – that we need to do more to encourage sport in schools, because they managed to miss their target with every projectile just as Labour has missed the lesson of that election victory in May,” he joked.
He also mocked Ed Miliband’s stone of election pledges as the “heaviest suicide note in history” and embarked on a convoluted rugby metaphor about his political beliefs in which he spoke of “binding tightly” to the hooker.
This article was written by Rowena Mason Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 6th October 2015 14.09 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010