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.