In his keynote address to the Conservative party’s annual conference this afternoon in Manchester, the Prime Minister outlined his hope to reform the UK economy by tackling regional inequality and slammed Labour’s policies on drugs, crime and the economy.
In his first in-person conference speech since the 2019 general election, he began by paying tribute to MPs elected in red wall constituencies, referring specifically to the Hartlepool by-election in May.
He praised the vaccine rollout, which he said was down to capitalism rather than state intervention, saying, the “answer is not to attack the wealth creators, is to encourage them because they are responsible for the aggregate increase in the country’s wealth that enables us to make this greater improvement and to level up everyone.”
He claimed Margaret Thatcher would not have ignored the problem of funding health and social care but would have opposed more borrowing to fund it. He said the Conservatives had historically looked after the NHS, and that the pandemic was a “lightning-flash illumination” to the previously undervalued issue of social care.
He veered to slam Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer for opposing the government’s updated Coronavirus plans in April, saying that if it was up to Labour “we would still be in lockdown”, adding that “if Columbus had listened to him[Starmer], he would have only discovered Tenerife.”
He said people were attacking British values and referred to his admiration for Winston Churchill, adding that ‘cancelling’ aspects of history is dishonest, comparing it to a celebrity editing their Wikipedia page.
Johnson said the Aukus pact is an example of Britain’s potential for achievement outside the European Union and that the three countries have “joined together to stand up for democracy and free trade”. He joked that the deal must be a good idea because the Labour conference voted against it.
He also praised the Kabul Airlift, without addressing the widespread criticism of the foreign and defence offices’ joint handling of the Afghanistan crisis. It is thought that former foreign secretary Dominic Raab was demoted to justice secretary because it emerged that he had been unavailable to organise the evacuation of interpreters as he was holidaying in Crete.
Johnson said that he is the grandson of someone who fled Turkey for his own safety and that the UK would welcome Afghan refugees.
He said Keir Starmer looked like a “seriously-rattled bus conductor” at his party conference last week in Brighton, and suggested he was prone to changing his mind in order to appeal to the left of his party.
He said he wanted to tackle human trafficking, and that he endorses the ‘Broken Windows’ theory of crime. Coined by sociologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling in 1982, the concept uses broken windows as a metaphor for disorder within communities, suggesting that such outward signs of crime and anti-social behaviour contribute to an urban environment that encourages further crime and disorder.
Johnson said Labour had endorsed softer penalties for abusers, which is something he “will not stand for”.
He criticised Sir Keir Starmer’s recent remarks that he “would probably do the same” when asked about Scotland’s recent announcement that police would no longer be required to arrest people in possession of drugs, including Class A substances, an approach he said was “straight from the powder rooms of north London”.
He joked that he had “seen” Labour supporters in Islington who “even have races for children where no one wins. That is no preparation for life, let alone for the Olympics.”
He said the government would be spending £640 billion on the ‘build back better’ programme, and announced a £3000 ‘levelling up’ premium for maths and science teachers moving to underperforming areas.
He said the UK has “one of the most lopsided economies” and that inequalities are stark within regions, not just between them, referring to inequality in the North West, saying: “What monkey glands are they applying in Ribble Valley, what royal jelly are they eating that they live seven years longer than the people of Blackpool, only 33 miles away.”
In a possible jibe at the premierships of his two Conservative predecessors, he said no previous governments have had the “guts” to deal with the issue.
He claimed “Labour does not like levelling up” but likes “levelling down”.
He quoted Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard first published in 1751, a poem that, among other themes, laments upon the wasted opportunity of the rural poor. He referred to Gray penning the poem in Stoke Poges, now one of the wealthiest villages in England, which he said had since ‘levelled up’ along with the rest of Buckinghamshire.
He suggested the need for a new economic model, referring to the unfairness of truck drivers who have to “urinate in the bushes” due to a lack of truck stops.
He says that will lead to a high-wage economy, but that “it will take time”. He claimed that the UK economy had “the fastest growth in the G7”. However, GDP data from April and June 2021, compared to the last three months of 2019, shows that the UK has joint-fifth growth in the grouping.
He also emphasised the importance of tackling environmental issues ahead of the COP26 conference in Glasgow next month and said rewilding were ‘Conservative’.
He also praised the value of home ownership, especially for young people. He vowed to fix the “broken housing market” by building more homes, but the government is yet to pass any new plans to do so.
He concluded the speech by suggesting that the levelling-up agenda would “unleash” the spirit of the Olympics, in which the UK swept a slew of gold medals despite representing just 0.8% of the global population.
Responding to the Prime Minister’s speech, Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said: “Boris Johnson’s speech was the most out of touch display by a Prime Minister in decades. He has created a cost of living crisis which he refuses to fix.
“The Conservative Party conference may as well be happening in a parallel universe. Johnson pretends that somehow long queues at the petrol station and empty shelves in the supermarket are all part of his cunning plan and blames anyone he can for the wreckage he is causing: UK businesses, journalists and the British public.”
Jennifer Williams, politics and investigations editor for the Manchester Evening News, said via Twitter: “That speech wasn’t about new policy – and wasn’t meant to be – but nevertheless worth noting that the PM said (to me and also in a broadcast clip I think) that there would be a big northern transport announcement at this conference. There was not”
ITV’s political editor Robert Peston also weighed in to the discussion, writing: “The closest @BorisJohnson came to justifying one of more controversial and less popular of his policies was to claim Margaret Thatcher would have raised taxes to fund the NHS and social care. But there was not even a nod at his withdrawal of the £6bn universal credit uplift.”