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A portrait of the PM as an empty vessel
Slow Views • Primary Sources

A portrait of the PM as an empty vessel

Thursday 7 October 2021

A former Number 10 speech writer analyses the vacuous stream of consciousness that Boris Johnson passed off as his conference address – and finds no substance to match the bombastic promises


Why are we back today for a traditional Tory cheek by jowler? It is because for months we have had one of the most open economies and societies and on July 19 we decided to open every single theatre and every concert hall and night club in England… You know the answer, it’s because of the roll-out of that vaccine – a UK phenomenon – the magic potion invented in Oxford University and bottled in Wales, distributed at incredible speed to vaccination centres everywhere…. and though the disease has sadly not gone away, the impact on death rates has been astonishing, and I urge you all to get your jabs because every day our vaccine defences are getting stronger and stronger and you, all of you, and everybody watching made this roll-out possible you each made each other safer so perhaps we should all thank each other…. but, above all, our untiring, unbeatable, unbelievable NHS, and as a responsible conservative government we must recognise the sheer scale of their achievement, but recognise also the scale of the challenge ahead. When I was lying in St Thomas’s hospital last year l looked blearily out of my window at a hole in the ground between my ICU and another much older Victorian section, and amid the rubble of brick they seemed to be digging a hole for something or indeed someone – possibly me, but the NHS saved me, and our wonderful nurses pulled my chestnuts out of Tartarean pit, and the other day I went back on a visit, and I saw that the hole had been filled in with three or four gleaming storeys of a new paediatrics unit – and there you have the metaphor my friends for how to build back better now.

It was funny, but it wasn’t really a metaphor for anything. A metaphor has to stand for something, and the question raised by this speech was whether Boris Johnson really stands for anything at all. This was an exercise in character portrayal. Nobody else in politics would call the Tory conference a “cheek by jowler”. Nobody else would bluster through at such pace, gabbling over sequential irrelevance, daring the audience not to enjoy themselves. And they did, too. This was a portrait of Boris. Optimistic despite everything, full of energy and can-do spirit. Amusing and not like other politicians.

But the characters who exercise a sustained hold over the public have to develop. The task for this speech was to show how the character described in Edwardian language would apply himself to the tasks of government after Brexit and after the pandemic. A conventionally structured conference speech would have laid this out in miniature near the beginning. But this had no linear story. Johnson spoke rather erratically from notes; the transcript released later by the Conservative party was a badly formatted mess (the extracts are repeated here as it is on the party website, including errors aplenty). Maybe that’s a metaphor for something.

We have a huge hole in the public finances. We spent £407 billion on covid support and our debt now stands at over two trillion pounds and waiting lists will almost certainly go up before they come down. Covid pushed out a great bow wave of cases. People did not or could not seek help and that wave is now coming back, a tide of anxiety washing into every A and E and every GP. Your hip replacement your mother’s surgery and this is the priority of the British people. Does anyone seriously imagine that we should not now be raising the funding to sort this out is that really the view of responsible conservatives? 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 more borrowing now is just higher interest rates and even higher taxes later….

In his coming battle with the Chancellor over public spending, the prime minister calls up the ghost of Mrs Thatcher. This is artful and clever because this is a real division – a philosophical fault line – in the Conservative party. Plenty of the applauding audience don’t really take Johnson’s line on this question but, calling up the combined moral authority of the NHS after a pandemic and their favourite Tory of recent memory, he glides over the problem. The alternative might have been to confront it. To say: once we were an anti-tax party and that was justifiable in the circumstances, but now we need to change. But this is a speech which solves problems with rhetorical tricks and ornaments. It is not a speech of argument, as such, but a speech in which the messenger routinely steps in at the point where the message becomes difficult. That isn’t always the wrong thing to do – it is a great skill to be able to carry it off and Johnson can undoubtedly do so. Tony Blair used to do much the same at the Labour party conference.

The pandemic not only put colossal pressure on the NHS, it was a lightning flash illumination of a problem we have failed to address for decades. In 1948 this country created the National Health Service but kept social care local and though that made sense in many ways generations of older people have found themselves lost in the gap when covid broke there were 100,000 beds in the NHS and 30,000 occupied by people who could have been cared for elsewhere whether at home or in residential care…. When I stood on the steps of Downing Street I promised to fix this crisis and after decades of drift and dither this reforming government, this can-do government, this government that got Brexit done, that is getting the vaccine rollout done, is going to get social care done.

This is the first of many promises that Mr Johnson makes. He will fix social care. In this passage, he sets a test by which we might, in time, measure his government. We will be, he says, the government that finally gets round to fixing serious problems. It is a high standard to set yourself, rather like those old Oxbridge-entry questions in which candidates are asked to set themselves a question and answer. Candidates routinely asked themselves unanswerable questions – and here Boris Johnson starts to do the same.

And we are dealing with the biggest underlying issues of our economy and society the problems that no government has had the guts to tackle before and I mean the long term structural weaknesses in the UK economy… because we are embarking now on a change of direction that has been long overdue in the UK economy we are not going back to the same old broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills and low productivity, all of it enabled and assisted by uncontrolled immigration and the answer to the present stresses and strains which are mainly a function of growth and economic revival is not to reach for that same old lever of uncontrolled immigration to keep wages low. The answer is to control immigration to allow people of talent to come to this country but not to 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… and that is the direction in which this country is going now, towards a high wage, high skill, high productivity, and yes, thereby low tax economy. This is what the people of this country need and deserve… and yes it will take time and yes it will sometimes be difficult…

If we didn’t know that Boris Johnson writes his own material, we might think that he had drafted in Ed Miliband as his speechwriter. The claim that the British economy has been founded on too many jobs of low quality has been a staple Labour critique of the Tories for a decade. Here, without so much as a blush, Boris Johnson simply adopts this position as if he had held it all along. This is one of the passages – the climate change section being another – in which the two main party speeches – Keir Starmer’s and Boris Johnson’s – were more alike than not.

Again, though, note the scale of the problem that Johnson has set himself. Low productivity is the long-term mystery of the British economy. The PM has the preternatural confidence that the problem will simply yield to his demands but, beyond voicing the aspiration, we get nothing here on what his government has discovered that has been unknown to all of his predecessors. It will be difficult at times, says Johnson. He can say that again. In fact, he will, many times.

We have one of the most imbalanced societies and lop-sided economies of all the richer countries. It is not just that there is a gap between London and the South east and the rest of the country, there are aching gaps within the regions themselves. 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?… When Thomas Gray stood in that country churchyard in 1750 and wrote his famous elegy as the curfew tolled the knell of parting day he lamented the wasted talents of those buried around him, the flowers born to blush unseen, the mute inglorious Miltons who never wrote a poem… he was standing in Stoke Poges my friends…. the 8th richest village in England. Since Gray elegised, Buckinghamshire has levelled up to be among the most productive regions in the whole of Europe. Stoke Poges may still of course have its problems but they are …overwhelmingly caused [by] the sheer lust of other people to live in or near Stoke Poges…

The next impossible promise is that this government will make life expectancy the same in all parts of the country. There are good reasons why people in the Ribble Valley liver longer than people in Blackpool; they are richer. And there are reasons poor people cluster by the sea in a declining resort like Blackpool. None of those profound structural forces are even approached in a daft gag about monkey glands. The use of Gray’s Elegy adds a hint of poetic glamour to a vain hope. According to a contemporary who knew them both, Thomas Gray “disliked Johnson… he disapproved his style and thought it turgid and vicious”. That was Samuel rather than Boris, but the thought lingers, because this is not serious analysis. The promises in the speech are now piling up and we have yet to hear how any of it is likely to come about.

After decades of ducked decisions our national infrastructure is way behind some of our key competitors. It is a disgrace that you still can’t swiftly cross the Pennines by rail, a disgrace that Leeds is the largest city in Europe with no proper metro system. A waste of human potential that so many places are not served by decent bus routes. Transport is one of the supreme leveller-uppers, and we are making the big generational changes shirked by previous governments. We will do Northern Powerhouse rail, we will link up the cities of the midlands and the north, we will restore those sinews of the union that have been allowed to atrophy, the A1 north of Berwick and on into Scotland…..

This is the territory on which Boris Johnson feels most comfortable. There is nothing he likes better than a good infrastructure passage. There are two reasons for this. The first is that when a new railway line opens he can attach his name to it. Expect lots of footage of the prime minister getting the train through Huddersfield in due course, talking about the town’s two prime ministers (Asquith and Wilson), neither of whom ever brought them a proper railway line. The second reason is that infrastructure projects are easier to do than complex social policy. A big bag of money and a command from the centre, and it can start. Boris Johnson has no theory of change other than that he should speak and it shall happen. New infrastructure projects are the only instance in which that is nearly true – which is why, amid all the music-hall tomfoolery we also get a name-check for the A1 north of Berwick.

You can see how much room there is to build the homes that young families need in this country. Not on green fields, not just jammed in the south-east but beautiful homes on brownfield sites in places where homes make sense. And this government is helping young people to afford a home. It has been a scandal – a rebuke to all we stand for, that over the last 20 years the dream of home ownership has receded and yet under this government we are turning the tide, we have not only built more homes than at any time in the last 30 years we are helping young people on to the property ladder with our 95 per cent mortgages and there is no happiness like taking a set of keys and knowing that the place is yours and you can paint the front door any colour you like…… and that is how we solve the national productivity puzzle, by fixing the broken housing market, by plugging in the gigabit, by putting in decent safe bus routes and all other transport infrastructure and by investing in skills skills skills….

And hey, presto, it is done. Why did nobody ever think of this before? The speech by now is descending into parody. It is as if Mr Johnson has either never noticed that others have tried to solve these structural problems or that he believes his own brand of magic can succeed where others have failed. Really, he is the only subject of his own speech even when he is ostensibly talking about social problems. His words on policy are banal. It is the fact that he is saying them that makes him believe, and makes his audience believe, that this time the country may summon the will.

So let me come now to the punchline of my sermon on the vaccine. It was not the government that made the wonder drug… it was, of course it was Oxford University, but it was the private sector that made it possible. Behind those vaccines are companies and shareholders and, yes, bankers. You need deep pools of liquidity that are to be found in the City of London. It was capitalism that ensured that we had a vaccine in less than a year and the answer therefore is not to attack the wealth creators; it is to encourage them because they are responsible for the aggregate increase in the country’s wealth.

The previous section on levelling-up implied, even if the implication was left hanging, that state action would have to be extensive. It sounds as though this will be an active government. But Johnson doesn’t want to dwell for too long on a serious point, especially not one as divisive as that. He wants to have it both ways so he follows his implication that the state must act with a paean to capitalism. This is a characteristic technique – if that is the word – in which he just talks through a contradiction as if it is not there. “Stop talking, Prime Minister,” said Nick Robinson on the Today programme. Unfortunately, there is nobody in the hall in Manchester to say the same.

And just as we used our new freedoms to accelerate the vaccine rollout we are going to use our Brexit freedoms to do things differently. We are doing the borders bill, we have seen off the European super league and protected grassroots football. We are doing at least eight freeports… and now we are going further, not only jettisoning the EU rules we don’t need any more but using new freedoms to improve the way we regulate in the great growth areas of the 21st century as we fulfil our ambition of becoming a science superpower, gene editing, data management, AI, Cyber quantum. We are going to be ever more global in our outlook. We have done 68 free trade deals including that great free trade deal with our friends in the EU that they all said was impossible…. and if you want a supreme example of global Britain in action, of something daring and brilliant that would simply not have happened if we had remained in the EU I give you AUKUS – an idea so transparently right that Labour conference voted overwhelmingly against it. And I know that there has been a certain raucous squawkus from the anti-aukus caucus, But Aukus is simply a recognition of the reality that the world is tilting on its economic axis and our trade and relations with the Indo Pacific region are becoming ever more vital than ever before….

This is the speech that Boris Johnson might have given. Had he bothered to write an actual speech it could have been an account of the country that Britain is now free to become after its departure from the European Union. It would have expanded on this, rather effective, passage and showed the route that Britain can now take. That, rather than the lame political knock-about he offered about the Labour party, is a genuine difference between the two parties. Yet the first substantive mention of Brexit comes late and does not last long enough. Johnson makes no mention of supply chain problems and opponents of his will grind their teeth at the omission. But you have no compulsion to talk about your weakest points. Better to make the best case you can – and this is the most effective section in the speech. It should have been higher up and it should have lasted longer, but that is the advice you would give to someone who is interested in crafting a speech and Boris Johnson isn’t interested in that.

We attack and deny our history at our peril and when they began to attack Churchill as a racist I was minded to ignore them it is only 20 years ago since BBC audiences overwhelmingly voted him the greatest Briton of all time because he helped defeat a regime after all that was defined by one of the most vicious racisms the world has ever seen but as time has gone by it has become clear to me that this isn’t just a joke they really do want to re-write our national story starting with Hereward the Woke we really are at risk of a kind of know nothing cancel culture know nothing iconoclasm and so we Conservatives will defend our history and cultural inheritance not because we are proud of everything but because trying to edit it now is as dishonest as a celebrity trying furtively to change his entry in Wikipedia and it’s a betrayal of our children’s education… a country that is proud to be a trailblazer to judge people not by where they come from but by their spirit and by what is inside them. That is the spirit that is the same across this country in every town and village and city that can be found that can be found in the hearts and minds of kids growing up everywhere and that is the spirit we are going to unleash

If Johnson is able to redeem any of the promises he has made in this speech – social care, life expectancy, educational equality, an uplift in the rate of productivity, a high-skill, high-wage economy – then he will count as one of the most substantive prime ministers the nation has ever had. If, however, things turn out to be a bit more tricky than he thinks, expect more of the guff with which he ends. This dreary and perfunctory attempt to conjure up a small battle over culture will be his rhetorical recourse when the world proves to be recalcitrant to his wishes.

This was, in sorry point of fact, an unserious speech which trailed a vast array of hopes, none of which come attached to any sense of how they might come about. But it didn’t matter. The character actor played his part and the audience played theirs. It just can’t last.