Image description: Boris Johnson standing at a podium
Boris Johnson has had a pretty rough ride of it lately. Even The Telegraph had abandoned him, as his government struggled to pull together a cohesive strategy for COVID, as ministers refused to face Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain and as he recovered himself from what was a very nasty stay in the ICU. His speech at the Virtual Conservative Party Conference was a chance to address these concerns: to prove that he is the man to deliver the future he describes.
Johnson spoke directly to his detractors in his speech, challenging anyone who didn’t believe that he was up to the job of Prime Minister to a “sprint-off”. He repeatedly attacked Labour – for owning million-pound homes in North London but not supporting homeownership for the under 40s, for trying to “rewrite history” and tear down statues, and for failing to protect the union. The open attempts to appeal to a party base that has been less than convinced in recent months might have been a little contrived, but played nicely into the hands of many social conservatives who have spent the last few weeks complaining about Rule Britannia.
If you aren’t a fan of his unique oratorical style, titbits like “Uncle Sugar, the tax-payer” and “my friends, I was too fat” probably didn’t hit quite the right mark, and without a live audience, the lines that would typically raise a cheer (or a jeer) fell a little flat. But the speech was a promising one, with a clear vision for the future, and it had a very obvious intended message: Boris is back.
The open attempts to appeal to a party base that have been less than convinced in recent months might have been a little contrived, but played nicely into the hands of many social conservatives who have spent the last few weeks complaining about Rule Britannia.
Despite the difficulty of delivering a speech without an audience, the main message of the speech was a positive one. Build Back Better was the carefully repeated slogan (and the letters didn’t fall off the wall behind him, which is always a good start). Johnson returned to the pre-pandemic promises of the last election, while also committing not just to a full recovery and a return to normality, but instead to utilising the pandemic as a trigger for change. Highlighted successes included the 4,300 new police officers that have already been recruited, alongside 14,000 new nurses, and 8 of the 48 hospitals that have been promised by 2030 have begun construction.
Johnson promised a “Green Industrial Revolution”, committing to making the UK the world leader in cheap green energy, despite previously saying that wind power couldn’t pull the top off a rice pudding. This revolution will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and in 10 years the UK will be powered entirely by off-shore wind: “as Saudi Arabia is to oil, the UK will be to wind”. A £160 million investment for ports and factories will kickstart the construction of these turbines, and the four years of free post-18 education being promised for adults without A-Levels will allow retraining and technical skills development.
This revolution will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, and in 10 years the UK will be powered entirely by off-shore wind: “as Saudi Arabia is to oil, the UK will be to wind”.
Education was a key aspect of the Prime Minister’s plan. Increased funding per student, a £30,000 starting salary for teachers and an exploration of the value of one-to-one teaching suggests that the effects of the pandemic on schools, and the introduction of wider online learning, might be changes that are here to stay. Young people will also benefit from further help towards homeownership, including long term fixed-rate mortgages of up to 95%, to turn “generation rent into generation buy”.
However, the lavish promises and the idyllic picture of the future – millions of trees, new wild belts, cleaner air, a country more united than it has been for decades – are perhaps fatally undermined by the lack of support of Boris, and a refusal to address recent failures. Brexit was mentioned only briefly, and there was little discussion of the upcoming economic impact of coronavirus; the jobs that are yet to be lost, as the PM focused instead on the opportunities that he believes will arise from the aftermath of the pandemic.
Sunak was praised for his innovative measures to protect the economy, although Johnson did admit he deeply regretted the erosion of liberties as a result of the virus, arguing that there had been no reasonable alternative. The PM also acknowledged that the care home sector had been let down during the COVID crisis and promised to address the problems that the sector faces, but there was no recognition of the other government failures that have worsened the pandemic. The initial lack of PPE, the Excel Spreadsheet scandal of the previous days; it seems that the government is focused on moving forward, but there could be more value in preventing mistakes like this happening again.
Brexit was mentioned only briefly, and there was little discussion of the upcoming economic impact of coronavirus; the jobs that are yet to be lost, as the PM focused instead on the opportunities that he believes will arise from the aftermath of the pandemic.
It remains to be seen whether Boris’ grand-standing style will convince people that he is really back, and the man for the job he’s always wanted. It’s hard to see how the recovery he promises can begin as infections rise and new restrictions and lockdowns are announced almost weekly. His depiction of the future will appeal to many Conservatives, and many of his detractors might quieten down now he has set out a plan for Britain post-pandemic. Boris is back: do we want him?