Boris still has eyes on the top job
Boris still has eyes on the top job (Reuters)

Whenever London mayor Boris Johnson speaks from a public platform he is inviting his audience to picture him as a future prime minister. And that is never more true than at the annual Tory party conference.

But this year he left many beyond his fan-base pondering a very different question: "Do we really want this man as prime minister".

The "Blond Bombshell" is predictably labelled as the darling of the rally, in the way Margaret Thatcher's former minister and would-be nemesis Michael Heseltine once was. So his arrival at the conference is always greeted with huge expectation and a media circus. Which he clearly loves.

And he usually lives up to the billing with close-to-the-edge performances littered with direct challenges to David Cameron and side-splitting jokes often bafflingly referencing his classical education.

But not this time. On this occasion Johnson attempted something relatively new, he got serious. Not entirely, but enough to raise the question of whether this version of Boris was truly suited to the role as prime minister.

He couldn't resist a smattering of witticisms like suggesting that, just like former French PM Alain Jupee, he could serve as Mayor and prime minister at the same time. But the challenges to Cameron were muted and were wrapped up in glowing praise for his mate Dave.

Government policies on stamp duty, right to buy and marriage tax breaks were all in his sights. But the overwhelming message was of unity.

Jokes about jokes

So what the audience got was the Boris that, if he realises his ambition, would enter No10. Boris without the entertainment value.

There was one risky passage where he supported cook Jamie Oliver's suggestion many British youngsters were, in effect, weak, workshy mummy's boys and girls and nowhere near as tough or employable as their European immigrant competitors.

But it fell flat leaving him to mutter: "I'm getting through this" and, later: "I have probably got myself into trouble as usual. That is my job".

When referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin he said: "I don't want to risk polonium in my sushi".

And when talking about a firm manufacturing huge quantities of lubricant, he added: "which I have personally inspected".

There were sideswipes at the French, he joked that his previous joke about hauling the economy off the rocks like the Costa Concordia would have been alright if it had been the Titanic and he had some bizarre section about cucumbers. And the less said about the Emperor Diocletian, who is apparently the by-word for price controls, the better.

But some of the jokes just seemed too predictable, too calculated, and the show of loyalty too obvious. Even the dishevelled, bumbling BoJo character seemed to be wearing a bit thin.

Worse, however, was the fact which seemed to be dawning, that this sort of stuff just wasn't prime ministerial.

Of course, much of his usual work of presenting himself as a future leader and ready to return to the Commons had already been done for him, by none other than Cameron.

After Johnson attempted to sidestep all questions about whether he could serve as an MP at the same time as being Mayor, Cameron answered the question for him. Yes he could and he (Cameron) would love to see him back in parliament.

It appears the deal between them is that Boris stays loyal to help the 2015 campaign and Cameron helps get him back into the Commons.

And at this Tory conference we got a glimpse of just what that version of Boris might look like.