7 October 2020

A rocket boost, not a reboot


The big party conference speech is always a sticky wicket. Only a handful of moments ever enter our collective conscious, usually the embarrassing ones. IDS ‘turning up the volume’, Ed Miliband forgetting a section, Theresa May being handed a P45 then losing her voice. The really good ones stand out too: Neil Kinnock’s blistering assault on Militant or Mrs Thatcher’s ‘the Lady’s not for turning’, say. Generally, though, these are occasions to be got through, rather than seized on with gusto.

If Boris Johnson’s keynote this year is remembered, it probably won’t be for any oratorical pyrotechnics. Though his delivery was perfectly competent, without an audience to feed off, the PM’s characteristic bouncing jollity felt a bit forced. Still, the trademark Johnson quips were in there, along with an insistence that, no, the PM’s ‘mojo’ is quite intact.

These speeches always require something of a suspension of disbelief, of course. But to listen to Johnson yesterday you would scarcely realise the clusterbomb that Covid has dropped on the country. The kind of sombre fiscal analysis that typified the Cameron era feels like lightyears away, even though the situation now is far, far worse.

The words ‘borrowing’ and ‘debt’ did not feature at all, and ‘deficit’ came up only once, and even then in relation to skills rather than the public finances. And while there was plenty on the long-term consequences of Covid, he had much less to say about fixing the more immediate problems of lockdowns, stranded students and a test-and-trace system that is still not up to scratch. Indeed, search for the word ‘test’ in his speech and you’ll find it just three times, each at the end of the word ‘greatest’, as in ‘this country is the…’.

And while in a parallel universe, this would have been a tubthumping speech about the sunlit uplands of post-Brexit Britain, the B word hardly got a mention. Some commentators have suggested, probably rightly, that this is a sign of emollience on his part. As I suggested recently, he really does want a deal and does not plan to indulge in any more chest-beating to achieve it.

Vision 2030

Instead of dwelling on the here and now, the PM implored us to indulge in a bit of the Vision Thing and “raise our eyes” to the year 2030, when the virus will be a bad memory. This was less of a reboot for the present, than a moonshot into the future.

Welcome to Boris’ New Jerusalem: harvested gusts of wind power our electric cars and green buses towards new homes that have sprouted across our freshly forested land – except on the Green Belt, naturally. Many of those homes have been financed by a long-term, low-deposit fixed-rate mortgage (a policy forged by our own Centre for Policy Studies).

There was, understandably, little in the way of new policies – though plenty about the Green Industrial Revolution the PM is now so keen on. Legions of new wind farms will create thousands, perhaps millions of jobs, marrying neatly with his ‘levelling up’ agenda in places such as Teesside, the Humber, Scotland and Wales. Levelling up is not just about shiny new infrastructure, though, but also opportunity – so the Government will increase per-pupil spending, offer first class new vocational courses and one-to-one teaching for pupils who are either struggling or exceptionally able.

If all this sounded a bit New Labour for the party faithful, he was sure to throw some red meat to the free marketeers too, with lines about becoming “more competitive, both in tax and regulation”. “It isn’t the state that produces the new drugs and therapies we are using,” he averred. “It isn’t the state that will hold the intellectual property of the vaccine, if and when we get one. It wasn’t the state that made the gloves and masks and ventilators that we needed at such speed.”

Lines on the merits of Rule Britannia, savaging the Scots Nats separatists and the folly of statism might well have been crowd-pleasers too, had there been a crowd to please.

As our editor-in-chief has noted elsewhere, the sheer scale of the Prime Minister’s ambition sits uneasily with the lack of capability the British state has demonstrated over the last few months. We could all have more confidence in the transformational agenda of the future if there were a clearer way out of the Covid mire.

Yesterday Johnson seemed to have inverted a classic political dictum. Where once he campaigned in flinty, focused prose – Get Brexit Done, Fund our Police/Schools/Hospitals – now he seeks to govern in poetry, though perhaps only as a diversion from the awfulness of current events.

Granted, painting an optimistic picture of the future is what leaders do in conference speeches. For now, the PM will have to get back to the present.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.