What did Boris Johnson's conference speech really mean?

Boris Johnson’s speech at Conservative conference drew on a number of themes, and was as notable for what it did not talk about as what it did. Here were the main ideas, and the arguments behind them.

Coronavirus

What he said: “I don’t know about you, but I have had more than enough of this disease that attacks not only human beings, but so many of the greatest things about our country.”

The background: Conference speeches tend to be light on detail, and Johnson’s survey of Covid-19 was a particularly blancmange-like mix of jokes about visor-wearing hairdressers dressed “as though they are handling radioactive isotopes” and a sober acknowledgement that the UK has “mourned too many”.

The PM was keen to stress his hope for a relatively quick return to a more normal life, and the watching Tory faithful would expect the speech to focus more on optimism than specifics about test-and-trace. But Johnson has previously been bullish about an end to many restrictions by Christmas, which is very obviously not going to happen. There are only so many more times he can get by just on blithe confidence.

A post-Covid world

What he said: “In the depths of the second world war, in 1942, when just about everything had gone wrong, the government sketched out a vision of the postwar new Jerusalem that they wanted to build. And that is what we are doing now – in the teeth of this pandemic.”

The background: Johnson is the latest politician to make this parallel. Ed Miliband summoned up the image of the reforming Clement Attlee government as a model for a green transformation for the economy. The PM was less specific, mainly saying a key goal would be to boost growth. It was notable how he compared this with the last “12 years of relative anaemia” – 10 of which have been under Conservative prime ministers.

His own health

What he said: “I have read a lot of nonsense recently, about how my own bout of Covid has somehow robbed me of my mojo … I could refute these critics of my athletic abilities in any way they want: arm-wrestle, leg-wrestle, Cumberland wrestle, sprint-off, you name it.”

The background: A good rule of thumb about whether criticism of a politician has hit home is how earnestly they rebut it. While Johnson was typically colourful in his language, this section shows how the PM is worried about the impression of someone waylaid by long-term symptoms following his serious brush with Covid-19. This ties into the narrative of a broad-focus leader for the good times struggling with the serious, detailed logistics of a global pandemic, and potentially set to stand down soon. Johnson spoke again how his weight could have exacerbated his symptoms, saying he has now shed almost two stone.

Wind power and green issues

What he said: “I can today announce that the UK government has decided to become the world leader in low cost clean power generation … and we believe that in 10 years’ time offshore wind will be powering every home in the country.”

The background: Perhaps the one real policy idea in the speech, this was the element trailed in advance. While the amounts pledged so far have been dismissed as nowhere near enough for this wind-powered transformation, it is notable in the longer context for a Conservative leader to focus on clean energy, let alone wind turbines, which for years has been an object of derision, even hate, for many in the party.

Role of the private sector

What he said: “We must be clear that there comes a moment when the state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it … We must not draw the wrong economic conclusion from this crisis.”

The background: A general nod to the concerns of the Tory faithful about the massive state response to the coronavirus pandemic and the colossal levels of borrowing this brought. Consider this just a statement of intent, and one which could easily get abandoned amid the tough economic realities of the coming months and years.

Culture wars

What he said: “We are proud of this country’s culture and history and traditions; they literally want to pull statues down, to rewrite the history of our country, to edit our national CV to make it look more politically correct.”

The background: Complete with a dismissive mention of “lefty human rights lawyers and other do-gooders”, this was Johnson on what he still sees as strong political ground, contrasting his embrace of tradition with Labour’s supposed metropolitan effeteness on such matters. Whether it hits home is another matter, given Keir Starmer’s embrace of patriotism in his own conference speech, and the Labour leader’s disinclination to dig himself into the trenches on such issues.

Brexit

What he said: “Be in no doubt that they are secretly scheming to overturn Brexit and take us back into the EU.”

The background: The dog that did not bark. Aside from this mention of Labour’s supposed – and not actually true – desire to stop Brexit, Johnson barely mentioned the defining issue of the 2019 election. Why? One possibility is the type of Brexit discussion that would thrill the watching membership might also annoy the EU at a crucial time for talks about a departure deal the PM still wants to seal.

Policies

What he said: “We will fix the injustice of care home funding, bringing the magic of averages to the rescue of millions” … “explore the value of one-to-one teaching, both for pupils who are in danger of falling behind, and for those who are of exceptional abilities” … “this government is pressing on with its plan for 48 hospitals – count them”.

The background: Light on detail even by the standards of conferences speeches, the plan for care homes was, literally, just a sentence, and a particularly opaque one. Similarly, there were no clues about how one-to-one teaching could be funded, or achieved amid an ongoing recruitment shortfall. As of this week we do have some facts about the hospital building programme – that the majority will not happen until as late as 2030, and most projects are rebuilds or new wings.

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