Artillery Row

Did Boris deliver?

The Prime Minister would prefer to overpromise than exceed expectations

Parties habitually see their conferences as a chance to cut through to the public and shift the narrative. You’re literally up there on stage on your own, at least in terms of broadcast coverage in a normal year. In opposition, David Cameron was sure that it was one of the only times that people actually took stock of how his party was then doing. Despite widespread Tory discontent, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party have backed virtually every lockdown measure the Tories have imposed so far, and polling shows that Labour are now moving towards level pegging.

At the end of October the first opinion poll of voting intentions put Labour ahead. Labour’s dilemma – don’t oppose policies which clearly poll well, even if they’re being screwed up in execution – is matched by the Tory one. Which is, don’t impose policies that go against everything the party and its leader claim they stand for, and arguably need to oppose if they’re to have a non-Labour rationale for staying in office. ‘Doing Socialism but better than Labour’ is a tricky pitch even for the most sinuous Conservative to contemplate.

So what did Boris Johnson offer at the first virtual conference to shift the dial? He suggested that although 2020 “hasn’t been the year we imagined”, the Coronavirus was a golden opportunity to change things. Channelling Clement Attlee he said, after the second world war the Government had sketched out “the post-war new Jerusalem”. We were now in a similar moment: “to improve on the world that went before”.

The Tory leader looked forward to a day when hairdressers “don’t look like they’re handling radioactive isotopes” and a day when we can meet loved ones in care homes.  But how he was going to get us out of perpetual lockdown he did not detail, not did his press team elaborate afterwards. Instead the prime minister preferred to focus on his “Build Back Better” and “Levelling up” agenda.

Throughout the speech he threw bits of red meat to the Tory right, but his heart wasn’t in it

Never one to underpromise and overdeliver, the vision he announced seemed more like a wish-list for nice times, as opposed to an achievable policy platform in times which are not so nice. He said our future would be one in which you could arrive in Britain on a low-carbon British-built jet, flash your Brexit blue passport, jump in an electric car and get back to a home in which you were allowed to choose the colour of your door (because you owned it), and turn on your kettle powered by an enormous offshore wind farm. All of this, he hinted, would be more possible because of the pandemic.

He said the idea, that he had read on the papers, that catching Covid had robbed him “of his mojo” was completely false but instead of treating us to more push-ups, for example, as visual proof, he used a slightly odd metaphor by comparing his underlying obesity which had made him more susceptible to Covid to some of the underlying problems in the economy which he was going to solve: The body politic as it were. Some of Boris’s long-time defenders will be alarmed that gossiped snark about his health is all too plainly preying on his mind in this way. He did, however, praise the “sensible conservative management of public finances”, which had left the country in a good position to make such huge spending commitments but somehow failed to mention his opposition, whilst he was London Mayor, to George Osborne’s plan to reduce public spending and balance the books. Consistency is for smaller minds, and people who didn’t become PM, like George.

Throughout the speech he threw bits of red meat to the Tory right. Priti Patel had rightly criticised the “leftie human rights lawyers and other do-gooders” who have “hamstrung” the criminal justice system, which went hand in hand with suggesting the country could be more cosmopolitan with a better immigration system.  More cakes and more eating, if you will, but obviously not so that we get fat again. We’ll be better-bigger.

The prime minister attacked Labour who won’t vote, this Tory Conference week, for a Bill to reduce vexatious claims against the armed forces, believe the massive growth in the state is a good thing long-term, and who “literally want to pull statues down”. Delivering probably his strongest line on the culture war he said his party was “not embarrassed about singing old songs about how Britain rules the waves”. But there was a sense that his heart wasn’t really in fighting the culture war – he quickly linked the lyrics to a British shipbuilding programme. Perhaps this sort of schtick is more Harrovian than Etonian? These are deep waters we’re to sing about ruling over.

There was an interesting part where he singled out the Chancellor for having “done things that no Conservative Chancellor would want to do except in times of war or disaster”, seemingly in an attempt to reverse the narrative advanced in the papers that Rishi Sunak is keener to protect business whereas he is more concerned with a safety-first approach to Covid.

Overall it was a slightly confused performance, made worse by the lack of a physical audience, and lacking any of the flattering suspicion on our part that we were in on a finely tooled act, instead of watching what we very much appeared to be. Keen to mitigate his Trumpian inability to feed off an admiring host, Johnson assured us that if he’d had a physical crowd sitting in front of him he “would elicit cheers” with all the measures the government had done to tackle Coronavirus. Which, as in so much in the PM’s life, was boldly presumptuous about the audience he proposed to charm, but also dependent upon his technique not having grown stale and rusty from disuse.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover