Isabel Hardman

Boris’s speech was comedy, not policy

Boris's speech was comedy, not policy
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Last week, Keir Starmer derided Boris Johnson as a 'trivial man' in his Labour conference speech. Today in his own address to his party in Manchester, the Prime Minister decided to lean into that description.

He didn't bother to give a serious speech groaning under the weight of meaty policies. There was just one announcement in the whole 45-minute offering: a £3,000 'levelling up premium' to send maths and science teachers to schools in deprived areas. This will have come as a surprise to many of Johnson's own Cabinet colleagues, who had expected that a policy-light conference would end with a speech full of announcements defining levelling up and showing the Tories what Boris Johnson stands for after a bewildering two years of pandemic politics. We didn't get anything close to those things.

That's not to say that those ministers will be even privately disappointed, because Johnson decided to use the slot instead as a victory rally. It was full of the sort of jokes only he could possibly make, about 'build back beaver' and 'Jon Bon Govey' – a reference to Michael Gove's big night out in Aberdeen. The hall naturally lapped it all up. Johnson's riposte to the Starmer insult seemed to be: yes, I crack jokes. And the voters love me. He described the Labour leader by contrast as 'like a seriously rattled bus conductor'.

When the Tories returned to after the 2019 election, they spent a month or so boasting that it felt like they were a new party coming in after a period in opposition. A few weeks later, of course, Covid hit and all that was held in suspended animation. Today Johnson pointedly turned his back on the past two Conservative prime ministers, suggesting that he was only just getting started with rebuilding the country, rather than building on their legacy. He even had the chutzpah to say 'we are dealing with the biggest underlying issues of our economy and society, the problems that no government has had the guts to tackle before'.

It's not just that he was suggesting that the governments which many of his colleagues and himself had been a part had failed to do their job. It was also that he was suggesting he had done his, claiming somewhat improbably that social care was one of the problems being fixed. The reality is quite different: the money raised by the tax will go first to the NHS without any guarantee it will ever move to social care. Even if it does, this is just a new funding settlement rather than actual reform.

Both main party conferences have felt as though they are operating in even more of a bubble this year than usual. This speech bore little resemblance to the problems dominating the headlines. Johnson even said early on that 'it's all ok now' in relation to Covid, even though case rates are rising again. The cost of living crisis and supply chain problems barely got a mention.

To his critics, Johnson will have appeared dismissive, perhaps even delusional. But perhaps his upbeat tone was more for the party than the public, an attempt to lift the spirits of members and MPs high enough that they'll cope with the coming winter of discomfort. Plenty are braced for it: one experienced Conservative MP told me last night that while the stage-managed conference had gone well, 'this is the calm before the storm' and 'we don't even have any idea how bad this is going to get'. Unless Johnson really is delusional, he will have an inkling of that too. And his strategy for dealing with it seems to be to try to entertain people through it, hoping they won't notice it too much.