Analysis: Boris Johnson delivers pride, positivity and promise, but very little substance

Boris Johnson has closed out his party conference with a speech full of jokes but light on substance.

Last week in Brighton Keir Starmer made weighty arguments, set out an agenda of policy and tried to show his party were to be taken seriously.

By contrast the Prime Minister wrote a fun speech that will be appreciated outside of Westminster.

Whereas Sir Keir needs to convince the country he can govern, Mr Johnson just needs to not convince them otherwise.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is joined by his wife Carrie on stage after delivering his keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference

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So we got a greatest hits set, a triumphant appearance in front of party members who have not seen a conference speech since before his historic election win.

There was much lauding of his own party’s achievements, with a speech not so much looking forward as praising what’s come before.

The Prime Minister mentioned beating Jeremy Corbyn, getting Brexit done, and the vaccine rollout.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers his keynote speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. Picture date: Wednesday October 6, 2021.

We heard that wages were rising, which is true, though there was no mention of the fact this isn’t in line with inflation.

Mr Johnson repeated the line that they were building 48 new hospitals, when most are simply upgrades.

He did announce a £3000 funds for maths and science teachers who go to poor areas, except even this wasn't new, it was a policy launched in 2019, scrapped and then brought back due to labour shortages.

Then there were the jokes, with more puns about Michael Gove being filmed dancing on a night out than policy announcements.

First he went with “Jon Bon Govey”, and then caused confusion if not concern by saying “build back beaver” while talking about the environment.

It was a scene of triumph, a Prime Minister who can break manifesto pledges and raise taxes and still be adored by his party. With an 80 seat majority, Mr Johnson can do whatever he wants.

That this comes in the backdrop of crisis should not be ignored.

Before Mr Johnson even began speaking, the National Pig Association confirmed they were forced to slaughter animals because of a shortage of European labourers.

Elsewhere, we know this has impacted the number of HGV drivers, sparking the fuel crisis.

But instead of solutions, we heard these are "merely a function of economic revival", and it’s time for higher wages.

He is suggesting the country should get more money due to Brexit, reframing the issues it’s caused as a chance to improve things.

The argument that Britain needs a pay rises not only put his tanks further on Labour’s lawn, if they have any grass left, but also sets up the next key political debate.

Doing so will risk both inflation and interest rates rising, but who would be brave enough to argue against paying people more?

Mr Johnson also promised to create a “low-tax economy”, despite his looming National Insurance rise for millions of workers in April to fund a £12 billion annual investment in health and social care.

What wasn’t in the speech was also significant. Despite “levelling up” being the first slogan to get a ministerial role, it’s still unclear how the UK Government plans to deliver it.

We know it means creating better jobs and career opportunities outside of London, but after numerous speeches and fringes, we are yet to see the method.

Mr Johnson also claimed only he had the “guts” to reshape society after “decades of drift and dither”, as if his party had not been in power since 2010.

And that was the general theme of conference. Pride, positivity and promise, but very little substance.

This could of course be because it’s still being sorted out with the Treasury at next month’s spending review.

Even if Mr Johnson does have a plan, in the Chancellor Rishi Sunak he has a financial libertarian and realist who may want to stem the spending taps, rather than open them further.

As for Scotland, there was no mention beyond a brief dig at Ian Blackford from the Minister for the Union.

Nor was there time spent addressing the cut to the Universal Credit uplift , a move that came in as Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey was seen belting out "The Time of My Life" at a karaoke event.

But this doesn’t matter. The Prime Minister is a political force that transcends the normal rule of engagement.

He has been repeatedly derided , but continues to win elections.

The Conservative party has led basically every UK wide poll in memory, and his lead in the key demographics suggests he is not going anywhere unless he chooses to do so himself.

He has seen a series of sleaze scandals, ignored numerous minsters or colleagues breaching the Covid restrictions and continued to soar in popularity.

Mr Johnson has come through the pandemic stronger than ever, while Labour still tries to decide what it wants to be.

Whereas Theresa May hid during the general election that saw her surrender a majority, Mr Johnson can simply hide behind jokes.

His positivity and belief in Britain is infectious, never more so than when in a room full of Tory members.

While journalists might seek to hear some details, telling the public everything is going to be OK has never not worked for him, and is now a tool more powerful than ever.

In Brighton, Sir Keir scathingly labelled the Prime Minister a “trivial man”.

While it was hard to disagree watching this speech, there is no sign a lack of details will hurt the Prime Minister anytime soon.


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