As the Prime Minister strode into Manchester Central late this morning, his intention was clear: to quite literally upstage his Cabinet colleagues by delivering an energetic speech to the party faithful, who had packed into a dramatically enlarged auditorium to receive a heady dose of optimism about the future of Britain.
This wasn’t the perfectly choreographed conference that Number 10 would have hoped for, and no amount of applause will drown out a noisy political agenda. The £20 a week cut to Universal Credit took effect today and has generated a flurry of damning headlines in newspapers as far apart ideologically as the Mirror and the Mail. The supply chain crisis is not over. Wholesale gas prices rose 37% today alone.
But this speech was quintessentially Boris Johnson. In a wide-ranging address, full of esoteric references and recalling his days as an in-demand after dinner speaker, Johnson steered clear of these challenges. Instead he spoke of his determination to lead a “reforming, can-do government” that is going to “get social care done… and deal with the long-term structural weaknesses of the UK economy”.
His central message this week has been that the Conservatives will prioritise the creation of a high skill, high productivity and high wage economy, with the National Minimum Wage set to rise to £9.42 per hour in the coming weeks. He pledged never to return to the “broken old system” of low wages, low skills and low productivity.
In a nod to the Brexit voters who ultimately put him on the path to Downing Street he said his Government would not rely on uncontrolled immigration, or use it as an excuse for failure to invest in people. “It is our mission as Conservatives,” he argued, “to promote opportunity with every tool we have. An appalling waste of potential is holding this country back.”
Johnson argued that further investment in the NHS via the recently announced increase in National Insurance was not a political choice but a necessity, again playing to the membership by committing to “cash going to the NHS frontline, and not to needless bureaucracy”. He praised NHS workers for their response to the pandemic and highlighted the vaccine rollout as a British success story.
Those watching for substantive policies would have been disappointed. In 50 minutes, there was just one announcement: a £3,000 levelling up premium to send the best maths and science teachers to the schools that need them most, recycled from a speech delivered by the then-Education Secretary in 2019.
A lack of policy in favour of broad brushstrokes attempts to define ‘levelling up’ was arguably the defining theme of this conference, the first “cheek-by-jowler” (as the Prime Minister put it) since the general election landslide of December 2019. The Prime Minister is clear that he will use his huge majority to remake Britain in his own image. Perhaps his only barrier is the prospect of a senior colleague deciding that he or she might be better placed to ‘build back better’ – and taking him on.
It is no accident that Rishi Sunak spent Monday night in the Midland Hotel bar, or that Liz Truss spent Tuesday dancing the night away at the LGBT Conservatives’ reception. The two likely frontrunners for the next leadership election are, according to one well-placed SpAd at this conference, proactively positioning themselves to run. For Boris Johnson, the coming years will be fraught with difficulty.