Boris Johnson arrived in Manchester needing to move beyond the idea of “levelling up” and finding a way towards setting out a clear plan. He acknowledged that talent is spread evenly in Britain but opportunity is not. It is clear he has understood that levelling up is the greatest project any government can embark on.
Few will disagree that investment in regional infrastructure and skills is long overdue. He is right to set out that businesses can do even more to play their role in lifting Britain in the wake of Covid. If Johnson’s speech becomes a watershed moment for more businesses to better understand their need to play a wider role in delivering levelling up, it will have achieved something important.
Many businesses are already rising to the challenge, such as those working with schools, in the Co-op’s case even running them – for example, the Co-op Walkden academy outside Manchester I visited today – and many other businesses are actively working to extend their opportunities to new places and people.
It is a welcome step to see the announcement of a levelling up premium for teachers in less privileged communities, but that must be the beginning of a much deeper and broader plan from the government. This challenge was made harder by Covid, but the need was there long before. Britain must become a fairer country with equality of opportunity. It’s a much higher ambition than simply chiding businesses for not paying more to lower-paid employees.
For all his engaging rhetoric on stage in Manchester, the prime minister must now match it with action, such as a comprehensive plan for levelling up through education, reform to the apprenticeship levy or through greater devolution to mayors and councils. There was little sign of this in Johnson’s speech: we must wait another day for detail, perhaps in the levelling up white paper, due later in the autumn. Let’s hope we won’t be disappointed then.
It was the quintessential Boris Johnson speech: baffling, freewheeling, chock full of overbaked metaphors and swashbuckling banter. The audience was clearly delighted, although a closeup of Rishi Sunak’s face suggested the Conservative party’s former bankers felt sheepish about being led by someone so fundamentally unserious.
In Johnson’s mind, he sees himself building a new Thatcherite Jerusalem here in Britain, where wages will soar once we get rid of Johnny Foreigner, where the market is facilitating a riveting transition to green energy, and where poor people will be levelled up as rich people see their taxes being levelled down. Life is getting better, was the message, and it’s thanks to me and my government.
It’s all lies, obviously. But does that matter? Millions of leave voters who put Johnson in office wanted fewer immigrants in the UK because they thought their pay packets would get bigger. Perhaps this speech will be music to their ears. And Johnson’s rhetoric about the imbalance between the north and the south echoes the anti-London sentiments uttered in pubs and cafes across the rest of the country. Even I laughed at some of his jokes about Keir Starmer.
But ultimately this speech is merely tarpaulin the prime minister is using to cover up fuel shortages, soaring living costs and a brutal and cruel social care system that will be relatively unchanged by recent policy announcements. Johnson’s quixotic musings can’t make those issues any less real for the people of this country, and the gap between his rhetoric and their experiences may lead to more mistrust, more cynicism and less belief in the possibility of progressive change – which paradoxically create the anti-politics sentiment that leads to people voting for charlatans who govern in colour.
There’s a lot going wrong in this country, but as long as the opposition party has nothing compelling to say about it, the main beneficiary of the mess we’re in could well be Boris Johnson.
Boris Johnson does not do good or bad speeches, he does good or bad Johnson speeches. This was vintage. Funny, optimistic, boastful, clever of phrase, totally empty. Barely a line wanted for a laugh or burst of applause. The only reservation left at the end was, now that we have had the warm-up act, when is the speech?
Johnson’s essential cover was that the short-term shambles of Brexit had been resolved by the chaos of Covid. This of course had been a triumph, “world-beating” for Britain’s NHS and its vaccine scientists, world-beating for him. Now that triumph should be turned into an opportunity to use Brexit to replace something called “the same old broken model” – the one produced by Johnson’s Tory predecessors.
In its place would come something called a “high-wage, high-skilled, high-productivity” economy, words he hoped might calm the petrol queues, pig slaughters and inflation forecasts that he deigned not to mention. Was this the same politician that ardently supported immigration when mayor of London? Yes, of course, but his position is whatever suits him on the day.
Johnson does not do policy. He does pledges. His every paragraph is undersigned by glory – the wonderful NHS, world-beating universities, getting “social care done” (again). He wants the country “levelled up”, but who knows how? He wants the climate-change protesters “insulated in prison”.
Johnson’s use of humour and glib erudition is remarkable, and clearly from his own pen. He referred to “Jon Bon Govey”, and to Grey’s elegy, Pareto’s economics and “Hereward the Woke”. Johnson is in favour of Emma Raducanu and against the “powder rooms” of drug decriminalisers. He loves Chinese and Afghans immigrants, but not European HGV drivers or chefs. Johnson’s likes and dislikes are drawn from the headlines of the Daily Mail. He is the man who vowel-mutated “jabs, jabs, jabs into jobs, jobs, jobs”.
But to seek meaning in a Johnson speech is to miss the point. He speaks direct into the ears of his listeners. Afterwards he strode immediately from the hall, without the ritual of timed applause. Despite some appearances, it was a very polished performance.
It was Boris Johnson as entertainer, with a conversational style, lots of jokes, and even the phrase “build back beaver”. But if there is one role the prime minister played today it was of the juggler.
Remain and leave, north and south, traditional Toryism and a big-state approach, the conference hall and the public. Everyone was covered and, if Johnson has it his way, everyone will be satisfied.
Johnson knows he must maintain this coalition, successfully juggling various disparate camps, if he is to win big again after 2019’s landslide, and today we saw his attempt to do so. He appealed to “responsible Conservative government”, pointed to the “hole” of Covid debt, and invoked Margaret Thatcher, while also taking the most interventionist line on business heard in a Tory conference hall for decades, talking up NHS spending, and squaring up to business on wages. He said both north and south would feel the benefits of levelling up.
He talked of no return to uncontrolled immigration while also maintaining living standards. With hints of an increase in the minimum wage, the prime minister may attempt to balance today’s hit to universal credit with a boost in pay.
There are dangers to such an act. In trying to sell everything, the prime minister may not really get anything across. There is a risk of over-commitment, and a lack of development of the policies that are needed to make all this real. If rising prices hurt more than controlling immigration helps, Johnson may have fundamentally got his calculation wrong. And such rampant optimism may jar with voters in the months ahead: the PM’s jokey tone might be Keir Starmer’s biggest opening when the cost of living truly bites.
But as it stands, all the pins remain in the air. We can all say what the Conservative conference was about; few can say the same of Labour. The Tories are united, Labour in disarray. Johnson landed popular dividing lines on crime, immigration and the economy. He spoke directly to those essential swing voters who are angry with how politics has been done for years. He might be an entertainer, but he is juggling to win – and the clear victor of the last two weeks is Johnson’s Conservative party.
As with every Boris Johnson speech, it was of no value in terms of content, but was meant to be a vehicle for the things we keep being told are Johnson’s strengths. Although equally, those strengths are difficult to identify.
A supposedly good orator rushed and stumbled through painful metaphors that didn’t work, jokes that didn’t land, and with no transition between ideas or sections. A supposed man of letters produced not a single rousing moment or poignant turn of phrase. There was not a clear line through it all – no theme, just vibes. It was the expression of all that Johnson’s assets boil down to in the end: a sort of chaotic cheerleading energy that from afar looks like vision.
The only clearly identifiable points were vague nods to classic Tory people-pleasers – cracking down on illegal immigration, defending our culture and history against the left – punctuated by confusing elaborations on what “building back better” and “levelling up” mean. What little twine there was holding it all together was the successful vaccine rollout, which seems now to serve as a substitute for, well, anything really that the government has achieved, or not managed to screw up, since the Conservatives returned to power 11 years ago.
Dorothy Parker famously said Los Angeles was “72 suburbs in search of a city”: Johnson’s address was a few disconnected incoherent political positions in search of a speech. But then, that is Johnson and this Conservative regime all over – a few disconnected incoherent political figures in search of a government.