London Mayor Boris Johnson holds a brick as he speaks at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, central England, September 30, 2014
London Mayor Boris Johnson holds a brick as he speaks at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, central England, 30 September, 2014 REUTERS / Darren Staples

It may have been just another morning at the 2014 Conservative Party conference, with the home secretary and London mayor making routine, pre-election speeches. But don't be fooled, this was a leadership beauty contest of the very finest sort - the blond bombshell versus the ice queen.

Nobody measured the relative size of the queues waiting to hear their favourites, but there were lots and lots of them lining up to watch Theresa May and Boris Johnson set out their stalls for what many believe will be the inevitable leadership election in a few years', or even months' time if things go as awry as some fear.

Chancellor George Osborne had done his bit the previous day, but his unremittingly grim we-hate-welfare-claimants-and-love-tax-cuts palaver was widely seen as having done him no good at all.

Home secretary Theresa May
May played the Iron Lady Reuters

First up was the home secretary, dressed in a darkest-of-navy zip-up number and combat boots. Okay, no combat boots - but she was definitely on manoeuvres and had extremism in all its forms, as well as the leadership, in her crosshairs.

The normal "leadership bid" give-away is when a minister strays way beyond their brief and starts trampling over their colleagues' patches in an attempt to show how they would get a grip on everything from the economy to school meals.

May took a very different, but arguably more effective approach. She played her own responsibilities for all they were worth and with some breathtakingly audacious, not to mention controversial announcements, painted herself as the new Iron Lady who would track down and despatch violent extremists of whatever persuasion - Islamist or neo-Nazi. Hand-to-hand combat didn't appear out of the question.

Into the bargain she appeared to play fast and loose with human rights, personal freedoms, freedom of expression - all while praising Britain's liberal society. It was, frankly, electrifying if mildly chilling stuff, and needless to say, the audience lapped it up.

Maybe it was the elegant, silver, spiral-shaped pendant she was wearing around her neck that hypnotised them.

And, of course, no politician has ever gone wrong by scaring the bejeebers out of the population about the awful armageddon that awaits the nation unless a strong, unbending leader gets a grip. Meaning them.

It was completely impossible to watch this figure on stage without thinking of Margaret Thatcher. So, job done.

Boris Johnson
Johnson ranged free Reuters

Then there was Boris. His critics have a simple view of him that says don't be fooled by the clownish exterior, he really is a clown.

His supporters - and they are legion - claim he is a breath of fresh air who combines genuine, approachable star-quality and serious political bottom.

However, it is still the case that the first thing that greets him when he walks on stage is laughter. The only other person I can remember who was capable of that was the comic genius Tommy Copper. And we all loved Tommy Cooper, so make what you will of that.

Boris, of course, is not bound by any of the normal rules of politics. He says whatever he likes, drops huge clangers, uses decidedly racy imagery and blusters into classical references at the drop of a toga.

Similarly, he can range over virtually any policy area, partly a privilege of his near-emperor-like power in London. So free-range Boris did what he always does.

He dropped a clanger by letting the cat out of the bag over David Cameron's bid to ban Scottish MPs voting on English-only laws saying: "I want to end the nonsense that allows Labour MPs to vote on English laws".

Oops, so that's the plan. We all know it really but you are not supposed to say so.

To add to the confusion over his motives, the sentence remained, unchanged in the printed text of his speech when everyone expected the word "Labour" to be replaced by "Scottish". I know it comes to the same thing, but there is still one Tory MP in Scotland and they presumably hope to win a few more one day.

Then he referred glowingly to a brick factory that was firing people, which he rapidly corrected to hiring people and firing bricks.

He even gently took the mickey out of David Cameron with a jokey encouragement for his audience to "purr" their approval.

And by painting a glowing, if not always recognisable picture of the utopia he has created in London, he showed just what he could do for the UK if he was ever in power. Those who love him loved him more; those who don't saw more of the clown.

Either way, leaving aside David Cameron's big speech, it is unlikely this conference will be treated to anything that tops these performances. Now it is over to the party to make its choice. One day.