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'.
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.