At the beginning of last week, Boris and his senior aides gathered in Downing Street to thrash out the details of his party conference speech.
As soon as they’d settled down, their discussion turned to a statement that had just been issued by Sir Keir Starmer, calling for 100,000 visas to be urgently issued to European drivers to address the ‘fuel crisis’.
‘It immediately clarified our minds,’ one of those present told me. ‘The PM said, ‘The idea that we’re going to manage this by pulling the lever on cheap migration again is for the birds.’ His view was, ‘We’re not going back to the old way of doing things.’ ‘
Boris wasn’t attempting to deliver a sermon or an economics lecture, but simply articulate in a clear, accessible way his new message and vision
Partly by accident, partly by design – and partly due to a serious strategic blunder by the leader of the Labour Party – the Prime Minister finally has a story to tell.
Ever since his landslide Election victory, even Cabinet Ministers have been struggling to answer the question: What does Boris want power for?
Now, as we exit the first party conference season since that triumph, he and his inner circle believe they have found an answer – a radical restructuring of the economy, a robust recalibration of his party’s relationship with big business, and the deployment of a decisive wedge issue that will consign Labour to another decade in the political wilderness.
This morning Boris is offering Britain reform of the labour market as radical as anything Thatcher or Blair ever attempted
Although, Boris being Boris, he didn’t quite phrase it like that. He would, he vowed to his delighted Manchester delegates, draw a line under the days when government would ‘use immigration as an excuse for failure to invest in people, in skills and in the equipment, the facilities, the machinery they need to do their jobs’, before pledging a national revival in ‘truckstops – to pick an example entirely at random – with basic facilities where you don’t have to urinate in the bushes’.
Opponents immediately lined up to rubbish the humorous tone of his address. ‘The jokes are all very well, but they’re going to wear thin,’ chided Sir Keir.
But not for the first time, he was missing the point. Boris wasn’t attempting to deliver a sermon or an economics lecture, but simply articulate in a clear, accessible way his new message and vision.
A message that has the potential to resonate across the country at large.
In fact, it’s already starting to resonate within parts of Starmer’s own party. On the first evening of the Labour conference, I was talking to a Labour MP about the supply-chain problems.
‘We think we’re on to a winner with this,’ he told me, ‘but look at my own patch.
There’s a factory where a third of the workers were from Eastern Europe, and they left almost overnight.
But now they’ve been replaced by local people. And the way management did that was by offering better pay, better conditions and offering to sit down with the unions. What are we going to do? Say we’re going to turn the clock back on all this?’
At the moment, Labour’s answer is yes. The party is going backwards.
Over the summer, Starmer announced he was heading off to those seats lost in 2019 to listen to the voters.
We now know what he thought he heard. That the residents of the Red Wall want him to write 12,000-word essays for the Fabians, tell men they can have a cervix, call for a female James Bond and demand the return of cheap Eastern European labour.
Boris is taking a different tack. Having gone through a period of telling his Ministers it was time to move on from Brexit, he has decided to reinsert Brexit into the heart of his strategy.
The PM now believes one of the most tangible ways of putting flesh on the bones of his ‘levelling-up’ agenda is to demonstrate there is a political umbilical cord linking higher wages and a better working environment to the British people’s 2016 decision to leave the EU.
Team Boris are stopping short of employing the ‘f*** business!’ rhetoric their man reportedly used while Foreign Secretary
To draw that link also means adopting a tougher approach towards corporate Britain.
Team Boris are stopping short of employing the ‘f*** business!’ rhetoric their man reportedly used while Foreign Secretary.
But they’re preparing to double-down against those in the business community trying to bounce them into reversing course on access to European labour markets.
‘We respect business,’ a No 10 insider says. ‘But we remember Stuart Rose launching the Remain campaign by complaining we’d lose cheap labour if we left the EU.
We’re going a different way.’ But developing a clearer message over where he wants to take the country is only part of the battle.
Having talked the talk at what he termed his first ‘cheek-by-jowl’ conference since 2019, he now has to walk the walk.
And that raises several questions. Does Boris have the self-discipline to drive through his new agenda?
Over the next few weeks we will see his attention drifting towards the green jamboree of COP26.
Winter will see a re-emergence of Covid. Along with fresh pressure on the supply chain. Each will test his focus.
A second question is: does Boris have the courage to stick to his guns as the inevitable ‘teething problems’ with Brexit and the globe’s post-pandemic recovery bite?
Margaret Thatcher used the fury unleashed at her economic reforms to fortify her. As we saw last week, Boris is at his happiest when basking in the applause and laughter of the stalls.
And there is one other fundamental question. Will his reforms actually work?
Matthew Lesh, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute – not exactly a bastion of Corbynism – claimed ‘Boris’s rhetoric was bombastic but vacuous and economically illiterate’.
It was a critique echoed, in less florid terms, by a number of economists and business leaders.
So the stakes could not be higher. In three years’ time, either Boris and his Ministers or the directors of the Adam Smith Institute are going to be looking for new jobs.
But there is one thing we don’t need to wait three years for. As we exit party conference season, Boris Johnson’s enemies are underestimating him once again.
Their line of attack – for the umpteenth time – was one of perceived superficiality. He’s trivial. A joker.
But there was nothing trivial about his delivery – after years of tortuous deadlock – of Brexit. Or his 80-seat Election majority. Or the £400 billion nationalisation of the entire economy in the wake of Covid. Or the deployment of the vaccine.
And there is certainly nothing trivial about his attempt – in the teeth of opposition from business, the broader economic establishment, his political opponents and significant elements of his own party – to abolish and reconfigure the Albanian-Veg-Picker model that has underpinned the UK economy for the past half-century.
‘A showman with nothing left to show,’ was Sir Keir’s description.
Maybe. But this morning Boris is offering Britain reform of the labour market as radical as anything Thatcher or Blair ever attempted. Sir Keir, in contrast, is offering the nation a turkey for Christmas.
At the end of the day, that may be what the country will settle for.
The fuel panic appears to be easing, despite the desperate effort of Remainers to pour flames on the petrol and stoke a fake Brexit crisis.
Yet if the queues return, or heating costs soar or inflation spirals out of control, then the boldness of Boris’s vision will probably count for nothing.
But for now, the boldness of that vision cannot be disputed.
The stalls remain full. And the greatest showman of British politics still has a few tricks left.