Boris Johnson: Battle has properly commenced, but don’t bet on it being over Scottish independence - John McLellan
Sellotape-spectacled sans culottes, fibreoptic vermicelli, corduroy communist cosmonauts, Cruella de Ville and build back beaver; no one does political speeches quite like Boris Johnson.
From the Prime Minister’s haywire, devil-may-care address to the Scottish Conservatives on Sunday night to his raucous climax to this year’s conference in Manchester, it has been a remarkable few days.
In a tightly packed room, placards were waved with loyal enthusiasm, even though in the midst of gags an alliteration he was effectively rubbishing what they had represented over the past decade. It certainly felt like a new beginning and that’s just the way he likes it.
The speech was very light on policy, and not a word about the Union or Scottish independence, but he knows how to enthuse.
Levelling up dominated his address as it had done most of the conference, and the spirit of ambition and self-reliance was what the room wanted to hear. The biggest cheer of the morning was his pledge to deliver a high wage, high skills, high productivity and low tax economy but throughout the week the question has been how.
Defending the hard-won Red Wall seats of Northern England and an affordable transition to renewable energy have been the main talking points on the conference Fringe, but now with the national living wage set to rise, the speech was designed as a signpost that the post-Covid recovery is starting in earnest.
There is an implicit belief in Boris Johnson’s ability to deliver on the campaign trail, and his address showed why. Plenty of polling evidence that he remains very popular in Red Wall seats like Blyth Valley and Redcar, but it also remains transactional. While faith in Labour in these places has been lost, the votes are on loan and dependent on delivery and no matter how box office Boris’s harum-scarum performances may be, that’s ultimately what will count.
The answer seems to be “trust us” and in one session, Cabinet Office Michael Gove simply said “watch this space” or words to that effect, but the living wage increase points the way.
Despite Manchester bar chat amongst Scottish Conservatives often coming round to the Malcolm Offord’s peerage and junior ministry, even with a pointed joke by leader Douglas Ross at the Scottish reception, at least a bullish Scotland Secretary Alister Jack’s determination to get on with infrastructure improvements like the A75 dualling and the establishment of a free port had a sense of genuine purpose.
How these will happen without the co-operation of the Scottish Government remains to be seen, but that’s all part of the equation in a context of a Scottish Government whose track record on delivery is unenviable. Until Boris took to the stage with his barrage of one-liners, for Scottish delegates the line of the conference went to Sandesh Gulhane MSP and GP, who described the Scottish NHS under the SNP as an “army of lions being led by sheep”.
With the limits of the Scottish Parliament’s power more clearly defined by the Supreme Court yesterday and the UK Government determined not to let the Scottish Government stand in its way, battle has properly commenced, but don’t bet on it being over independence. The signal from this week, is that the UK Government has other things to do.