Boris Johnson’s gag-filled speech at Conservative Party Conference has delighted party members but contained just one policy announcement, and failed to address the selection of crises currently at play in the UK.
The Prime Minister set out his vision for the government’s post-Covid domestic agenda, but did not include details of any major policies to back them up.
The speech, which lasted around 45 minutes, contained promises to fix the social care system, warnings about the risks of “cancel culture” and a pledge that his government would have the “guts” to overhaul the country.
But foreign Office minister James Cleverly said behind the jokes, the PM had a “really, really serious message” for the country.
“I thought the speech was great, it was spot on. It had the energy and enthusiasm you’d want from a Boris Johnson speech and it had the humour and the jokes,” he told PoliticsHome.
“It also had a really really serious message about how much we are grateful for the work that has got us through this really difficult situation with covid and about a really positive agenda for the future.”
Lord Frost, whose efforts negotiating Brexit were talked up by Johnson in the speech, described it as “fantastic”. He told PoliticsHome it “really tapped into the spirit of Britain, the energy that this country’s got and the great future we’ve got ahead of us now we’re out of the European Union”.
The speech did not address frustrations with the fuel crisis, or shortages in supermarkets, but Johnson’s notorious charisma seemed to have won over those in the conference hall at least.
“This Prime Minister has got an amazing way with words,” Frost continued. “He’s able to convey things in a way that nobody else can. He has an ability to convey things in a totally new way that people like.”
International Trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan felt the speech was “really exciting”.
She said Johnson’s words were “optimistic, determined, taking on all the challenges that are coming with his usual energy and absolute commitment to making sure that the UK is going to have the skills it needs and grow that productivity so that we can be all that the uk can be”.
Johnson opened the set piece with a defence of his controversial National Insurance hike as he claimed there was a “huge hole” in the national finances after Covid.
Some MPs and activists had expressed concerns over the funding plans, warning it would damage the party at the next election.
But speaking on Wednesday, Johnson said: “I can tell you something, Margaret Thatcher would not have ignored this meteorite that has just crashed through the public finances.
“She would have wagged her finger and said that more borrowing now is just higher interest rates and even higher taxes later.”
The speech to the party faithful is the first since the Conservatives last met in Manchester in 2019, months before Johnson secured an 80-seat majority in the December general election.
In a reference to former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, Johnson thanked activists for their work during the 2019 General Election campaign “when we finally sent the corduroyed communist cosmonaut into orbit where he belongs”.
Johnson also used his speech to attack the current Labour leadership, claiming they were not interested in helping tackle regional inequality.
“In their souls they don’t like levelling up,” he said.
“They like levelling down, they like decapitating the tall poppies and taxing the rich till the pips squeak.”
Johnson accused Labour of being soft on tackling drug use, adding that decriminalistion was an answer “straight from the powder rooms of north London”.
Johnson goes hard on “leftie Islington types” who want to decriminialise drugs….
If you speak to any group of young Tories for long enough it won’t take long to get on this subject and lots want to see decriminalisation, believing it to be a sensible way forward.
“Or why people should feel they have to move away from their loved ones, or communities to reach their potential.
“Levelling up works for the whole country – and is the right and responsible policy.
“Because it helps to take the pressure off parts of the overheating South East, while simultaneously offering hope and opportunity to those areas that have felt left behind.”
In a bid to tackle inequalities, Johnson unveiled a new £3,000 premium to send the “best maths and science teachers to the places that need them most”.
He added: “There is absolutely no reason why the kids of this country should lag behind or why so many should be unable to read and write at the age of 11.”
Conservative MP Brendan Clarke-Smith said the speech showed Johnson was “ambitious” about tackling inequalities after the pandemic.
“I thought it was a great speech to close the conference with, I think it addressed everything that we’re looking at at the moment.
“Very good humour as always as you’d expect with the boss and I think it gives us a lot to consider for the future and was very positive.”
Scott Chapman, a councillor in Sandwell, said the speech was “pure theatre” but believed it would go down well with voters.
“The PM’s speech was great. Typical Boris, pure theatre, but a lot of good policy,” he said.
“It will help my constituents and residents, that’s what matters. People in Sandwell are dumped in a school, no outlet in life and that’s what we want to change. Give people opportunities, not just university.”
PoliticsHome provides the most comprehensive coverage of UK politics anywhere on the web, offering high quality original reporting and analysis: Subscribe