The prime minister’s address went long on gags but short on how to deal with the crises confronting the country
Last modified on Wed 6 Oct 2021 15.02 EDT
Boris Johnson’s speech to the Conservative party conference was marked by the two traits that have allowed him to dominate recent British politics: ruthlessness and truthlessness. His 45-minute address mercilessly lampooned political opponents while claiming his own chaotic rule left the country facing not multiple crises but a historic opportunity to make the “big generational changes shirked by previous governments”. The party faithful lapped it up. But for all Mr Johnson’s tall claims, the rhetoric of “levelling up” Britain remains a political attitude rather than a policy prescription.
The only proposal that came out of the slogan was a smaller version of a previously scrapped policy on school funding. A decade of austerity under Tory governments and a disastrous, hard Brexit have been a bad deal for this country. The prime minister’s humorous speech offered little more than pledges of a better tomorrow. In demonstrating his own star power he reminded voters that he has no plan to deal with the country’s many problems beyond lower migration.
Mr Johnson did offer a masterclass in how to appear radical while sounding like a voice from the past. At one moment he was speaking up for old-fashioned sovereignty, the next auditioning the UK for the role of an Indo-Pacific nuclear power. He wanted Latin in schools and gigabit broadband in homes. His government’s hardline immigration policies were, he said, generous to those fleeing Chinese rule from Hong Kong. Mr Johnson went out of his way to praise bankers, drug companies and tech entrepreneurs after a week of ministers bashing business.
This was a speech meant to cut off his opponents’ attack lines. Mr Johnson’s calculation was that millions of voters had too great an emotional investment in the Brexit Britain he delivered to abandon the cause. Too often, his account of past events has little regard for the truth. His claim of a successful “Kabul airlift” is a case in point. And for all Mr Johnson’s tough talk on rape convictions, he won’t commit to meeting government targets set three months ago. His speech, shamefully, was another attempt to rig the record on Covid, despite clear evidence the government failed to take timely action to prevent this country’s needlessly high death toll.
The prime minister claimed a vote to leave the EU was one to deliver “a high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity, low-tax economy” by “taking the pressure off parts of the overheating south-east while offering hope and opportunity” to left-behind areas. This won’t happen under the economic orthodoxy that he has submitted to. Mr Johnson made a virtue of raising taxes to pay to fix the backlogs in the NHS, yet failed to acknowledge that it would have been fairer to target assets rather than income. He made the economically illiterate argument that “more borrowing now is just higher interest rates and even higher taxes later”. During the pandemic, fiscal deficits went up to record levels and interest rates were cut to record lows. Rather than offer proposals to deal with sharply rising costs of energy, fuel and food, Mr Johnson has chosen to make things worse by cutting universal credit for 6 million families by more than £1,000 a year.
Whether it is Mr Johnson’s actions or words that voters judge him on depends in part on the timing of the next election. His strength is that he sells himself as the candidate of “hope”. He has no deficit of optimism but suffers from a lack of substance. Mr Johnson talked of “taking the tough decisions” to hit net zero targets but did not spell out how he will achieve that. Without policies, his vision remains an empty one. For Britain’s sake, the prime minister cannot just preach change; he needs to show what he would do to achieve it.
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