Boris Johnson revs up the faithful with vintage performance - but the cameo's too late to save the Tories

He's still got it. Boris Johnson may have left it late before coming to the party - the Conservative Party, that is - but his 11th-hour rallying cry to the Tory faithful was vintage Boris and just like the old days.

It was the kind of shambolic, chaotic but barnstorming box office performance that he used to give at packed Tory conference fringe meetings when he was the king over the water and greeted like a rock star by his adoring fans.

Back then he used to upstage and humiliate David Cameron and then Theresa May.

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This time his victim was Rishi Sunak, who Mr Johnson's cheerleaders accuse of knifing him in the back and leading the charge to oust him.

Et tu, Brute? More like Et tu, Boris. As well as answering the call in the Tories' hour of need, he'd clearly come to settle some old scores, defend his record and remind the Tory faithful he hasn't gone away.

And he certainly did all of those.

But while Tory activists who turned out at nearly 10pm adore him, is he still a vote winner? Or for undecided voters, is he a reminder of partygate, sleaze and Tory chaos?

But he was there on his terms, as he made clear.

Mr Johnson made a point of beginning his speech, from scribbled notes on crumpled paper, by saying he'd been asked to speak at this rally.

In other words, Mr Sunak had begged him to come to his rescue at the end of a disastrous Tory election campaign. He wasn't going to offer. He wanted Mr Sunak to grovel and beg.

There wasn't a word of praise for Mr Sunak in his speech. No handshake, either.

There may have been other speakers - first Michael Gove and later Mr Sunak - but this was the Boris show and a one-man show.

Although the PM made perhaps his most punchy speech of the campaign when he spoke after him - why leave it so late? It was Mr Johnson who was the star of the show, topping the bill, obviously, and had the Tory faithful screaming his name.

'Past Starmer's bedtime'

After a warm-up speech by Mr Gove and then a low-key announcement which seemed to take the audience by surprise, the star turn shuffled on to the stage in an ill-fitting suit, hair unkempt and uncut for weeks and considerably heavier than in his Number 10 days.

When did he last visit a barber?

He always messes up his unruly mop of blond hair before a speech. All part of the act. The late Ken Dodd used to do that. Fans would say Boris the comedian is just as funny as the man from Knotty Ash.

What a mess he looked, though. Not that the audience cared. They chanted "Boris! Boris!" just like they did when he was the darling of the conference fringe.

He began - predictably - with a gag at Sir Keir Starmer's expense, the man he used to call "Captain Crasheroonie Snoozefest" at prime minister's questions.

He thanked the audience "for coming so late tonight to this venue, way past Sir Keir Starmer's bedtime". Boom, boom! The Labour leader will have to live with jokes about his 6pm Friday curfew for some time.

"I was glad when Rishi asked me to help," he claimed. "Of course I couldn't say no."

Well, probably not. But those Red Wall Tories now facing defeat on Thursday will have wished he'd answered the call a lot earlier in the campaign.

Turning on Farage

We got the usual Johnson defence of his handling of the pandemic and the roll-out of the vaccines. And he boasted several times, not surprisingly: "We got Brexit done." It was "a proper Brexit", he said, a "Brexit government".

Maybe. The audience loved all that, but why are so many Tories turning to Reform UK if it was such a triumph?

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Next, Sir Keir was ridiculed as "Jeremy Corbyn's disciple" and accused of "taking EU law by dictation" and "poor old Starmer" was "reluctant to explain the difference between a man and a woman", he claimed.

Then he turned on Nigel Farage, something Mr Sunak and his senior ministers should have done weeks ago.

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Reform UK was "full of Kremlin crawlers" and Putin's "pet parrots", he said. "Shame on them!" he declared, to wild applause.

And then a typical Johnson gag: "Don't let the Putinistas deliver the Corbynistas!"

Vintage, yes. Funny, naturally. A great showman, definitely.

But is he still an asset, when so many voters appear to want to punish the Conservatives for his time in Downing Street rather than blame Mr Sunak for Tory failures?

Whatever voters think of Boris Johnson, his last-minute cameo has almost certainly come too late to save the Conservatives from the heavy defeat the polls are predicting.