Boris Johnson has brought the Tory faithful to their feet as he delivered the high point of the annual Tory ‘cheek-by-jowler’.
His enviable ability to turn weaknesses into strengths – petrol shortages into an argument for wage growth and controlled immigration – continues to confound critics who can’t put their finger on whether the man is a political genius or the flukiest politician in living memory.
The Prime Minister rounded off a distinctly policy-lite few days outlining more of a grand narrative and staking a claim to swathes of the political centre ground.
With characteristic wit, he pulled each of the issues of the day back to his levelling up agenda and delivered a speech aimed at the whole country where he argued for a high wage, high skill, high productivity economy.
After a conference at which we witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of the Tory left, in the form of the Tory Reform Group, criticising (albeit gently) the Government for not being right-wing enough, the Prime Minister set out his case for capitalism and sought to rationalise his lower tax principles with his higher tax policies.
‘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.’
He pulled no punches with Keir Starmer and the Labour Party, assigning them to what he sees (knows) as being on the wrong side of the culture wars which he summed up – ‘know-nothing cancel culture iconoclasm’.
He covered all the bases; the wonderful NHS, the soldiers, the vaccine, the nightclub antics of a red-faced “Jon Bon Govey”, with literary references galore. And put in a strong entry to the alliteration of the year award with his brief foray into foreign affairs describing the ‘raucous sqaukus from the anti-AUKUS caucus’.
While the policy announcements didn’t flow from the main stage, that doesn’t mean the ideas weren’t there – although, to be fair most were emanating from business delegates. The fringe circuit was buzzing with business turning out to press ministers on everything from new plans for funding infrastructure (borrowing the US policy of Tax Increment Financing if you’re interested), the role of purpose-driven private capital investment, reforming the yet to be reformed long overdue planning reforms (more homes in the north of England), incentives for next-gen renewable power, rewilding and the future of the Beeb (come and talk to us about the details).
Given the tricky backdrop and the potential number of bear traps to fall into, the Tories leave Manchester in high spirits; the conference was upbeat and went without a hitch. Whether you believe he’s pulled it off through blind luck or because of careful calculation, the prospect of Tory hegemony is real.