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Boris Johnson delivered closed the Conservative Party conference on Wednesday with a speech to party members in Manchester. Here are the key takeaways from the prime minister’s address.
1. Not about policy
Party leaders often use their set-piece conference speeches to announce headline grabbing new policies. Johnson did not. Aside from a new £3,000 “levelling up premium” for talented maths, physics and chemistry teachers to go and work in areas which need them, the PM largely avoided new commitments to deliver on his “levelling up” slogan. Instead Johnson painted a broader rhetorical picture about his “mission” to decrease geographical inequalities.
2. Defended tax rises
The prime minister devoted a key section of his speech to defending his decision to raise national insurance, a move that has worried many Tory MPs and grassroots members, in order to pump more money into the NHS and social care in the wake of the Covid pandemic.
He said the only other option was for the government to borrow more. “I can tell you – Margaret Thatcher would not have ignored the meteorite that has just crashed through the public finances,” Johnson said. “She would have wagged her finger and said: ‘More borrowing now is just higher interest rates, and even higher taxes later.’
Johnson tried to reassure Tory activists that eventually the UK would be a “high-wage, high-skilled, high-productivity and, yes, thereby a low-tax economy”.
3. Back to the office
Johnson urged people to go back to their workplaces after working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic. “As we come out of Covid, our towns and cities are going to be buzzing with life because we know that a productive workforce needs the spur that only comes with face-to-face meetings and water cooler gossip,” he said. “If young people are to learn on the job in the way they always have and must, we will and must see people back in the office.” It came after Tory chairman Oliver Dowden told Tory activists that “people need to get off their Pelotons and back to their desks”.
4. Culture war
Johnson used his speech to plug away at a culture war. He told Tory members “defend our history” from “cancel culture iconoclasm”. The PM said some people on the left wanted to “rewrite our national story”. A running theme of the conference were attacks on an ill-defined “woke” culture, which the party sees as a key dividing line ahead of the next election.
5. Attacks on Labour
Keir Starmer used his speech to Labour’s conference last week to try and make a break from the Jeremy Corbyn-era and move the party back towards the centre ground. But Johnson wants to tie the Labour leader to his predecessor and said Starmer was still being “pushed this way and that by a Corbynista mob”.