Boris Johnson has outlined his vision for an upbeat, optimistic UK buoyed by higher wages and improved opportunity for all, contrasting this with a Labour party he labelled “tired” and divided.
In a speech to the Conservative conference that sometimes sounded haphazard and was largely light on policy, the prime minister cheered a hall packed with activists by presenting what he said was a government mission to reset the economy.
Echoing themes set out throughout the event in Manchester this week, Johnson argued that policies for improved transport links, better internet connectivity and an end to mass immigration would boost wages and productivity.
In keeping with his familiar boosterish style, Johnson ranged through subjects from the private sector to the NHS and the vaccine rollout, but made only a cursory mention of pressures from the cost of living and supply chain difficulties, as manifested in petrol station queues.
He did, however, make repeated and sometimes personal attacks on the opposition and on Keir Starmer, referring to the Labour leader once again as “Captain Hindsight” and saying he resembled a “seriously rattled bus conductor”.
The overarching theme of the speech, such as it was, centred on unleashing the potential of all Britons, citing as examples sports stars such as the England football team, Olympians and Paralympians.
He said at the end: “Not only the achievement of those elite athletes but a country that is proud to be a trailblazer, to judge people not by where they come from but by their spirit, by what is inside them.
“That is the spirit that is the same across this country, in every town and village and city, that can be found in the hearts and minds of kids growing up everywhere and that is the spirit we are going to unleash.”
The only new policy was a “levelling-up premium” for education, worth up to £3,000, to “send the best maths and science teachers to the places that need them most”.
Otherwise, much of the speech, given in a larger, specially built auditorium used only for Johnson’s address, was a freewheeling collection of jokes, jibes, alliteration and puns, including adaptations of the Tories’ “build back better” slogan for conservation projects and meat exports – “build back beaver” and “build back burger”.
Veering between such riffs and more serious subjects such as his gratitude to the NHS during his own bout of coronavirus, Johnson defended the planned rise in national insurance intended to pay for extra NHS treatments and social care, even citing Margaret Thatcher as someone who would have raised taxes after the “meteorite” of Covid.
In another section of the speech he hailed the role of the private sector in creating coronavirus vaccines, including the AstraZeneca jab.
“Behind those vaccines are companies and shareholders and, yes, bankers – you need the deep pools of liquidity that are to be found in the City of London,” he said. “It was capitalism that ensured we had the vaccine investment.”
Behind this, Johnson said, was “this reforming government, this can-do government”, which was intent on tackling long-term structural weaknesses in the UK economy, blaming businesses such as haulage for not properly investing in better wages or conditions.
Citing huge regional inequalities in health and educational attainment, Johnson said: “That is not just an issue of social justice, it is an appalling waste of potential, and it is holding this country back.”
He contrasted efforts to level up with what he called Labour’s negativity. “In their souls they don’t like levelling up, they like levelling down,” he said. “They like decapitating the tall poppies and taxing until the pips squeak.”