Boris Johnson’s conference speech was all rhetoric over substance

Inside the hall, it was a typical Boris Johnson performance: a cross between a summing-up speech at the Oxford Union, some after-dinner jokes, and the kind of unguided, busking campaign oratory that helped him win the London mayoralty, Brexit referendum, the Tory leadership and the 2019 general election.


Some of the lines were incomprehensible, meaningless, or both, often pointless schoolboyish puns, such as “Build Back Beaver” and “Jon Bon Govi”, or just random – “Hereward the Woke” and hydrogen-powered buses. There was only one item that could be remotely classified as substance: the £3,000 bonus for teachers of shortage subjects in hard-up areas, and even that wasn’t entirely fresh.

The trick with political speeches, as much as to galvanise the devotees in the hall, is to make them resonate with a much wider public. In this respect, the prime minister’s speech was a disappointment (assuming anyone had much hope for it in the first place).

Outside the hall, Mr Johnson’s boosterism and cheesy gags felt very much out of place. Perhaps it was bad luck or poor planning, but the speech was delivered shortly after about 1 million workers had come off the furlough support scheme, and on the very day that 6 million families were to suffer a reduction in their income of about £20, thanks to the end of the uplift in universal credit.

The breezy, confident tone of the prime minister may have sent his activists back to their constituencies prepared with new excuses for the state of the country, but it seemed entirely inconsistent with the mounting sense of chaos felt across the nation at large. Mr Johnson seemed out of touch; a great fan of Winston Churchill (duly referenced in the speech, a sure sign of a man who knows he needs an audience with him), the prime minister wasn’t offering blood, sweat and tears, but beavers, satire and Google Maps.

He did continue his efforts to turn the post-Brexit shortage of haulage drivers, and much else, into a new economic paradigm – a high-wage, high-productivity economy. Only days ago, ministers were telling anyone who would listen that it had nothing to do with leaving the EU and ending free movement of labour; now the public is expected to believe that it was the master plan all along. Of course, it is nonsense.

In a healthy economy, higher productivity gradually drives and justifies higher wages, and leads to healthier profits without pushing up costs and prices. In a struggling economy, as the UK now is, higher wages are caused purely by a sudden shortage of labour in certain sectors, partly due to Covid-19 in the current situation and exacerbated by Brexit. They will squeeze profits and lead to lower investment and thus lower productivity, and leave the UK with a shrunken economy and higher price inflation. Besides, for many workers, especially in the public services Mr Johnson showered with compliments, there will be real-term pay cuts, and every employee and every employer will be faced with higher national insurance contributions next year.

Not for the first time, Mr Johnson presented himself as a break from the past. He claimed that his government of “reform” was the first to have the “guts” to tackle huge changes such as reshaping the UK’s economic model and “fixing” social care, as well as getting Brexit “done”.

You would not think, listening to Mr Johnson, that the Conservatives have been in power, albeit sometimes including the influence of the Liberal Democrats or the Democratic Unionists, for more than a decade. There was not so much as a nod to his Conservative predecessors; as in the old Soviet Union, David Cameron, George Osborne and Theresa May are non-people, political losers and failures. Maybe, and Mr Johnson has been a consistent election winner, but his alibis – Brexit and Covid-19 – are receding and, like all leaders, he will soon have to show that he can live up to his rhetoric and keep his innumerable promises.