It’s a wrap. Or is it rap? The party conference season has closed, and Boris Johnson has walked off stage to the usual standing ovation, even if he didn’t hang around to bask in it. A kiss with Carrie and then off the stage, through the crowds and into the prime ministerial limousine back to Number Ten. He will be entitled to enjoy a smile of satisfaction as the Jaguar hits the M6. A party conference devoid of rows, gaffes, internal party navel-gazing or resignations. Oh how Keir Starmer must have looked on in envy.
The conference slogan was ‘Build Back Better – Getting on With the Job’. It might as well have been ‘Move Along, Nothing to See Here’. For the media it was a difficult conference to cover given nothing actually happened. New policy announcements were as rare as hens’ teeth. Normally when the media have nothing to report, they manufacture a row or a division between different ministers. Even that was something the Tories managed to escape this week. The picture that emerged was a party united behind a leader that had a clear, optimistic vision of where he wanted to head.
Given the events of the last eighteen months and the difficulties that are besetting the government and the country at the moment, it’s quite an achievement for the Prime Minister to be the master of all surveys in the country and still relatively popular in the country. The message from his speech was clear. It was that there can be no resting on Tory laurels and that the country expects the government to deliver on its promises.
When I got into the hall and took my seat, I was rather surprised to find myself just behind Carrie and Rachel Johnson. ‘Oh Christ,’ I thought, ‘the cameras are going to be on me’. Nowadays I don’t clap during conference speeches, even if I want to. I am not there to cheerlead, I’m there to report. I will admit to two lapses in this speech – one was the Build Back Beaver line (who doesn’t like a beaver joke) and the second was when he was talking the Insulate Britain ‘crusties’. Forgive me, for I did sin, Twice.
The pictures of me that emerged on social media afterwards showed everyone clapping apart from me. I looked as if I had swallowed a wasp.
Bear in mind I have been highly critical of Boris Johnson’s speeches in the past. His 2019 conference speech was far from his finest hour. So forgive me if I say this was the best speech I have ever heard Boris Johnson deliver. And he delivered it well. He stuck to his script with only one or two ad libs. But it was patently him. He writes his speeches very differently to his predecessors in that most of it is his own work. And he doesn’t finish until right at the last minute. He also didn’t use an autocue which made the delivery much more personal and natural.
The speech held the attention and not once did I think, come on mate, get on with it, I’ve got a train to catch. Contrast that with Keir Starmer’s ponderously delivered 90 minute bore-a-thon in Brighton last week, which was only enlivened by the heckling.
Admittedly, with the exception of the unveiling of a £3k grant for maths and science teachers to move to schools that need them, there were no new policy announcements, which are usually the fayre of leaders’ speeches and designed to garner media attention. But that didn’t matter. This was a speech which was designed to look to the future and give a signal of the Britain Boris Johnson wants to build. Levelling up was at its centre, of course, and he articulated what it meant far better than in that awful speech a few months ago when none of us were any the wiser after he finished the speech than we were when he started.
What many voters, especially in red wall seats, like about Boris Johnson is his relentless sense of optimism. Sometimes he’s guilty on unrealistic boosterism, but not on this occasion. He knows that optimistic politicians win elections, pessimistic ones lose them. It’s a fact of life which the Labour Party would do well to acknowledge on the odd occasion rathe than pretend that we live in the worst country in the world and that we’re all going to hell in a handcart.
So Boris Johnson today provided the rhetoric. It’s now left to Rishi Sunak on 27 October to put the policy meat in the sandwich in his spending review announcements. And then the news agenda will be dominated by COP26. It’s going to be an interesting few weeks, and Boris Johnson can be satified he’s put a spring in his party’s step as they return home.