Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party conference speech was waffly, vacuous and detached from reality. When does that start to matter? This is the question that Labour will be asking itself today. The Prime Minister delivered an address that ignored the profound crises taking place outside the conference hall: petrol stations empty and people unable to get to work, supermarket shelves bare, energy prices climbing, Universal Credit cut as workers face higher taxes. And yet the audience lapped it up and his critics are quiet because his party is still polling pretty well.
The only concrete policy contained in the speech was a “levelling up premium” of up to £3,000 to send the “best” maths and science teachers to areas that “need them the most”. It is almost exactly the same measure that was launched in 2019 before being scrapped a year later. Mostly, the Prime Minister offered gags – a few good ones among lots of rubbish. He also spent quite a bit of time on made-up scenarios to keep the ‘culture war’ going, with nonsense about Labour not liking competitive sports for children.
Starmer described Johnson in his Labour conference speech as a “trivial man”, a “showman with nothing left to show” and a “trickster who has performed his one trick”. Johnson’s rebuttals were much sillier, though likely more memorable. “Starmer Chameleon” and “Captain Hindsight” was referred to as a “seriously rattled bus conductor”, a “human weathervane” and “the skipper of a cruise liner that’s been captured by Somali pirates”, and the party he leads was accused of “flapping with all the conviction of a damp tea towel” during the pandemic.
Johnson was able to deliver an incoherent, sloppy keynote speech with little substance because we already know him and his vision for the country. Over the last week, he has repeatedly told us that he wants a high-wage, high-skill economy, with less immigration. ‘Levelling up’ is still talked about incessantly despite little sign of its implementation, and appropriately Johnson framed it as “the spirit of levelling up”, confirming it is more of a mood than a real plan. The narrative was clear, so the lack of detail was forgiven.
Rishi Sunak didn’t mention the climate crisis on Monday; Boris Johnson didn’t mention shortages, Universal Credit or National Insurance today. People will say the Prime Minister can only perform this trick – blinding everyone with boundless optimism – for so long, and the project will come crashing down once the cost of living crisis really hits. But that suggests the best for the opposition is waiting for it all to go wrong for the Tories. That cannot be the answer: it is up to the whole labour movement to fight the Conservatives’ complacency and confront their chaos, or the ruling party will simply keep adapting and winning.