Boris Johnson opts for optimism in Britain-boosting speech

Prime minister's keynote speech attempts to raise morale for 'levelling up' UK

If words can resolve the world’s problems then Boris Johnson made a good pitch to prove the point.

With his well-honed writing skills, the prime minister used his speech to the Conservative Party conference to try to boost Britain with a strong jab of optimism following its grim pandemic toll.

Mr Johnson said he wanted to “unleash” the “spirit” of the nation.

He told the Tory conference about the spirit of NHS nurses, entrepreneurs, the England football team, Olympians, Paralympians and tennis star Emma Raducanu.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

While “Boris boosterism” might be good for the spirit, the reality could well be different. Numerous crises are building in Britain which could make an autumn of inconvenience turn into a winter of despair. Mr Johnson made no mention of the continuing petrol station queues, the rise in energy bills, pigs being incinerated, bare supermarket shelves, a £20 ($27) a week cut in unemployment benefit, or the National Insurance tax rise.

Looming dark clouds - Mr Johnson must hope - will remain on the horizon.

The Conservative Party leader's positivity only dimmed when he promised that his premiership would confront Britain’s underlying economic and societal issues, that he said “no government has had the guts to tackle before”.

In contrast to the customary cash-led announcements usually reserved for leaders' speeches, the prime minister, 57, allowed himself just two low-key proposals. One was to give maths and science teachers in deprived areas a £3,000 pay rise, and the other was to introduce 4,000 clean energy buses, some powered by hydrogen.

He did criticise businesses for employing migrants on cheap wages to make a profit. This, Mr Johnson has vowed, will come to an end, with controlled immigration allowing only skilled workers into the country.

“We will not to reach for the same old lever of uncontrolled migration to keep wages low,” he said. Britain instead would move towards “a high wage, high skill, high productivity, and yes, low tax economy”.

On climate change, Mr Johnson's demeanour was direct. The Cop26 summit in Glasgow next month was a key moment “when the resolve of the world is put the test” to agree targets to keep global warming within 1.5°C. There had to be worldwide agreement because a single government could not do it alone.

It was the “challenge the whole of humanity faces”, he said, while extolling Britain’s forests of wind turbines “twice the diameter of the London Eye” that tower over the water “like the redwoods of California”.

The renewable energy revolution would continue in Britain, with “more wind, more nuclear,” along with rewilding the countryside, in which otters and beavers would return to the rivers. “Build back beaver,” he suggested, in a tweak to his usual “Build back better” slogan.

He praised capitalism for providing the money and innovation to produce Covid-19 vaccines within a year, saving 120,000 lives in Britain while allowing the economy to reopen after lockdown. “Jabs, jabs, jabs become jobs, jobs, jobs.”

Mr Johnson lauded 68 trade deals, struck because “Brexit freedoms allow us to to do things differently”, with Britain “going to be ever more global" in its outlook.

Even the US had been persuaded to import the UK’s meat once again. “You ask yourself how have the Americans been able to survive without British beef for so long?” he said. “Build back burger, I say.”

If there was a contradiction it came in his praise for the installation of “fibre-optic vermicelli in the most hard to reach places” that allowed people to work from home, while condemning that new culture. “A productive workforce needs the spur that only comes with face-to-face meetings and water cooler gossip if young people are to learn on the job … we must see people back in the office.”

Much of the 45-minute oration was spent explaining his vision of “levelling up”, a phrase he used 15 times. Mr Johnson referred to grim 18th century days in the Buckinghamshire village of Stoke Poges that had now become the eighth richest place in Britain.

Britain’s national infrastructure lagged behind other countries, which was a “waste of human potential” and a proper transport system would be “one of the supreme leveller-uppers”, he said.

The neglected north of England, now filled with Conservative MPs following the 2019 election, would experience a “powerhouse” of road and rail growth.

Levelling up, he said, would “take the pressure off parts of the overheating south-east while simultaneously offering hope and opportunity to those areas that have felt left behind”.

With a wave and then a kiss from his pregnant wife Carrie, Mr Johnson passed through a standing ovation of admirers.

Like his hero Winston Churchill, Mr Johnson combines literary skill with refined oration that enchants his Conservative audience.

Arguably, it was Churchill’s words that kept Britain’s morale high and fighting spirit alive in the dark hours of the Second World War. In the same vein, Mr Johnson’s paean to Britain’s indomitable spirit will certainly be examined in the months to come.

Key takeaways from Boris Johnson's speech

The four-day Conservative Party conference in Manchester wrapped up with Boris's Johnson's 43 minutes and 55 seconds performance.

These are the main points:

· Science and maths teachers are to benefit from a “levelling-up premium”

In what turned out to be the headline policy announcement, the Prime Minister said the UK Government would give an incentive worth up to £3,000 to encourage science and maths teachers to head to different areas of the country.

The move will be on top of a £30,000 starting salary for teachers.

· Reducing GP and NHS waiting times is now the ‘priority of the British people

With society reopening following more than a year of Covid-19 restrictions, Mr Johnson said the focus needed to be on getting through the backlog of hospital and doctor appointments.

“Covid pushed out the great bow wave of cases and people did not or could not seek help, and that wave is now coming back,” he told the conference.

“Your hip replacement, your mother’s surgery … and this is the priority of the British people.”

· The Brexit vote means the country must embark on a “difficult” economic shift towards higher wages

Mr Johnson, who led the “Leave” campaign, said the British population “need and deserve” a move towards a “high-wage, high-skilled” economy following the Brexit result.

The Tory party leader admitted it would “take time, and sometimes it will be difficult, but that is the change that people voted for in 2016”.

· There was no shying away from criticising the efforts of past Conservative administrations

Before Mr Johnson entered Downing Street, the Tories had been in power for nine years.

But that did not stop him from including David Cameron and Theresa May’s time in No 10 in his swipe at the “decades of drift and dither” from previous governments, who he accused of lacking the “guts” to take on major changes.

· The Prime Minister believes Margaret Thatcher would have approved of his tax rise to pay for social care

Affection for former prime minister Margaret Thatcher runs deep in certain sections of the Tory Party, even though her reign ended more than 30 years ago.

Despite Thatcher being known for her low-tax ideology, Mr Johnson went so far as to announce that the former party leader, who died in 2013, would have approved of his manifesto-busting 1.25 percentage-point rise in National Insurance to pay for a social care overhaul.

Mr Johnson told activists: “She would have wagged her finger and said: ‘More borrowing now is just higher interest rates, and even higher taxes later.’”

· People must stop working from home for the good of new starters

In a message drilled home by ministers during the conference, Mr Johnson said that for companies to be productive, they would needed “face-to-face meetings and water cooler gossip” as he called for the pandemic working patterns to end.

He showed particular concern for young new starters, arguing it would be difficult for them to “learn on the job” if they were left to work from home.

“We will and must see people back in the office,” he said.

Updated: October 6th 2021, 5:13 PM
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