James Forsyth

Johnson looks to the future while ignoring the present

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Boris Johnson’s whole rhetorical style is designed to elicit a response from the audience. So there was something particularly bizarre about him delivering his conference speech to an empty room. At one point, Johnson even imagined how the delegates would be reacting to his announcements if they were there.

The speech was a deliberate attempt to be very upbeat. He began by promising conference that by next year’s gathering there would be no restrictions on the size of events even indoors and no social distancing. Johnson’s view is that there’ll be a gamechanger by March: either a vaccine or instant spit testing. But if this is wrong, and there are still restrictions in place this time next year, the mood in the Tory party will be very bleak indeed.

Johnson delivered next to no detail on how the country would get through this coming winter. But when it came to the medium term there was a sustained argument about why the private sector would need to lead the economic recovery. There was less emphasis on the power of the state to shape markets and more on how demand leads companies to innovate.

There is a need for what Boris Johnson called ‘basic hygiene on crime' — a promise to bring it down and to ensure that the additional police officers make a difference. He also committed to ensuring that young people could get on the housing ladder; a classically Tory aim — the party has always done best when expanding homeownership. But the method for achieving that aim, state backing to guarantee 95 per cent mortgages, is risky. On education, he said that he wanted one-to-one tuition for children at both ends of the ability scale. This is a very Johnson policy: he is keener on academic selection than many. But the question is how to pay for it.

Green policies took up much of the speech. This is not just because of Johnson’s own personal interest in the issue — his father, his brother and his partner are all passionately interested in the subject — but also because of the fact that it is a way to put flesh on the levelling up agenda. The offshore wind revolution he wants to see will require big infrastructure upgrades in Teesside and the Humber.

The end of the speech was a vision of what Britain would look like in 2030. It was a classic Johnson column; there were lots of properly ambitious plans for technological change and the like. But to get to the long term you have to make it through the short term. The most pressing problem for the government right now is how to handle this coming winter.

Now listen to today's Coffee House Shots, where John Connolly talks to James Forsyth and Katy Balls about whether the PM's Tory conference speech overlooked the UK's coronavirus troubles.

Written byJames Forsyth

James Forsyth is political editor of The Spectator.

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