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oris Johnson’s speech to the Conservative party conference was an exercise in personality. There is no doubt that Mr Johnson is the dominant political character of his time. Julian Barnes once said of the young Tony Blair that he charmed an audience even though he didn’t say a chipolata sausage. In a speech that even included a passage about sausages, that is exactly what Boris Johnson did.
Mr Johnson has the enviable gift that everything he does and say is distinctly Boris-like. Who else would have described the “raucus squaukus from the anti-aukus caucus” when talking about his security pact with Australia and the United States? The character Mr Johnson plays on the podium combines bluster with sunny optimism. It is a mixture that allows him to talk straight through difficulties.
This capacity to gloss over contradictions, to make them seem to disappear, is a skill of leadership. Not everyone can do it and Johnson is formidable because he does it effortlessly. The Tory party is, at the moment, a mass of contradictions. The one that ought really to worry the faithful is that the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is a conventional fiscal conservative who wants to keep a tighter rein on public spending. The Prime Minister himself is a profligate spender who keeps making vast promises to do with regional inequality.
Eventually, the world outside the conference hall will intrude. Johnson’s performance was more detached from reality than any conference speech in living memory. He did not so much as mention the petrol shortage or the fact that there are gaps in the supermarket shelves. He said nothing about the withdrawal of the increase to Universal Credit. The speech operated almost entirely in a land of Johnson’s own making.
For the moment the Tory party is happy to live in this land but it will not last. Clever rhetoric can gloss over a contradiction for a time but it can never wish it away. It was notable last night that the Federation for Small Businesses said that Labour may now be the party of business. The problems in the supply chain are real; Mr Johnson failed to mention them.
The problems of labour shortage are also real; Mr Johnson did discuss immigration but only to say that there might be some disruption in the short-term while the nation adjusts to paying itself more. The labour shortage has panicked the Government into the argument that Britain, and London in particular, has relied for too long on “that same old lever of uncontrolled immigration” which, he says, has forced down wages and reduced the incentive for firms to invest. This led him to an evidence-free riff about Britain becoming a high-wage, high-productivity, low-tax nation. The people in the hall might have loved it but you cannot create any of that just by saying so.
Neither can you achieve “levelling up”, the assault on regional inequalities that the Prime Minister has defined as his mission. It is hard not to avoid the conclusion that London, the city that was once his political base, will suffer from the attempt. In the cleverest passage of the speech, Johnson tried to paint a resurgence in the North as a way of taking pressure off the South- East. He pretended that growth in one region would have no effect on any other. The whole speech was a postponement of reality. The world was knocking at the door of the conference chamber, asking to be let in. Johnson and his band of amused delegates kept that door tight shut and carried on. But the world will keep knocking.
What did you think of Boris’s speech? Let us know in the comments below.
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