Boris Johnson’s Content-Free Conference Speech Proved Words Are Not Enough

“God loves a trier and so does the British public, but they may sicken of someone who tries their patience with sheer incompetence in handling this disease. What they got in this speech was not even jam tomorrow, but jam in a decade’s time. Many would rather just have a Covid test tomorrow, not in a decade’s time.”

 The Waugh Zone

“You have his words.” Normally, when a political spokesman utters this line in response to reporters’ questions, it’s because their boss has said something so controversial or sensitive that they know it’s more than their job’s worth to expand on it. Go out and just play a straight bat, don’t add anything further and just repeat what the boss has said. Defence is the best offence, etcetera.

Equally normally, after a prime minister’s party conference speech there will be a briefing in which one-sentence big picture promises are fleshed out with detail, detail that was excluded because it would interrupt the natural narrative flow. We are normally given meat on the bones, the fine brushwork to fill in the sketch, the footnotes to the argument.

But after Boris Johnson’s Big Speech, his first at a party conference since his 2019 election victory, his spokesperson answered almost every single question about policy with – you guessed it – “You have his words.” The briefing was one of the most painful, excruciatingly content-free I’ve ever had to endure in doing 23 years of these things.

Here’s a flavour. What did he mean when he hinted at a social insurance for care homes? “I’m afraid I don’t have much more on’ve got the prime minister’s words”. Yes we have his words, and they told us bugger all beyond a vague citation of Winston Churchill’s “magic of averages” reference to pooling risk.

Can you tell us more about his idea of one-to-one tuition? “You’ve got his words…” Any more detail on his 95% mortgage deposit idea, how long terms would last for example? “You’ve got what he said..” My particular favourite was the answer to a question for more detail on what the PM meant by “digital ID”. “I think that’s a reference to biometric passports,” the spokesman told us. “The passport is obviously a form of digital identity document….” Riiiight, OK.

The helpless, hapless spokesperson was only his master’s voice, of course, so it was no surprise that he sounded so vacuous. It’s worth remembering too that at his first party conference as Tory leader last year Johnson had not a single new policy and his press team didn’t even bother to hold a briefing afterwards at all.

But the 2019 conference was a pre-election sloganfest, a campaign rally in all but name, not a serious update for the nation in a time of crisis as this year’s should have been. With his own competence on coronavirus the most live issue, it felt as though he wanted to reassure the public he was a big, bold deliverer of new ideas.

Yet promises and competence can only be measured if there’s some substance behind them, rather than quarter-baked items plucked out of the ideas fridge. The sheer lack of any detailed plans may prompt even those who give him the benefit of the doubt to think the Emperor really does have no clothes.

Of course, Johnson is a wordsmith and he can still deploy them to good effect. One of his best lines was how much we miss and rely on ”all the gossipy gregariousness and love of human contact that drives the creativity of our economy”. It would be a huge mistake too not to recognise the deep well of goodwill and sympathy that many of those who voted for him (particularly Labour Brexit voters) still retain.

The passage on his vision for 2030 had a certain upbeat futurism about it and no one should underestimate his skill at political amnesia, socially distancing himself from previous Tory leaders as if they were in a different party. Today, he effectively laid into Cameron and Osborne and May and Hammond on the economy as much as, citing “12 years of relative anaemia” on growth. Ditto his attack on previous governments’ ”failure to tackle the deficit in skills, inadequate transport infrastructure, not enough homes people could afford to buy”.

Yet just as a half-empty Commons chamber has brutally exposed his blustering rhetoric in the absence of a heaving mass of noisy backbenchers, so too the ethereally silent reception for his conference speech (delivered to a camera in a bare room in Canary Wharf) cruelly exposed the duff applause lines, grinding gear-changes and occasional incoherence of his words.

To take just one example, the PM said “we are working for the day when life will be back to normal”, then said seconds later told us the virus was a “catalyst for change” and “after all we have been through it isn’t enough just to go back to normal”. Just weeks ago he was saying people had to go back to the office to save city centres, now he says “instead of being dragged on big commutes to the city” he wants people to “start a business in their home town”. It’s a laudable sentiment but it jarred with his ‘Save Pret’ lecturing of last month.

Similarly, the PM said he will “ensure” that the next Tory conference would mean people meeting “cheek by jowl” again, which seemed both a hostage to fortune and a reminder to those in the events industry that their industry is currently being lowered into the grave with little state help to pay for the burial.

The irony is that if Johnson had at least tried to expand on his policy ideas, he may have won round even some sceptics. The Sutton Trust has long pushed the idea of one-to-one state tuition to give poorer children a level playing field with those who can afford private tutors. If Johnson had backed up his “we must care for the carers” with a new national carers living wage that could have proved he was serious. If he had set out funding for the billions, not a few hundred million, needed for green energy, he could have sounded credible.

By contrast, what we got was a reheat of his speech just before “unlockdown”, when he talked of coming out of an Alpine tunnel into the sunlit pasture. The problem is that we are now hurling into another tunnel and for jobs and hospitalisations (up sharply again today), the dark is all that lies ahead this winter. Covid and even Brexit were dismissed in a few paragraphs, almost as afterthoughts.

God loves a trier and so does the British public, but they may sicken of someone who tries their patience with sheer incompetence in handling this disease. What they got in this speech was not even jam tomorrow, but jam in a decade’s time. Many would rather just have a Covid test tomorrow, not in a decade’s time.

The best way to reassure people about our future plans is to deliver in the here and now. Imagine if he’d promised billions on a detailed plan to fix Test and Trace (or at least help fund small, localised labs), and on paying people a healthy sum to self-isolate. Instead, all we had – as his spokesman repeated ad nauseum – were “his words”. Right now, words are not enough.