Conservative conference: Boris Johnson says Britain cannot go back to ‘old normal’ after coronavirus

PM accused of ‘bluster’ as he sets out vision of life in 2030

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Tuesday 06 October 2020 20:36 BST
Boris Johnson says life 'cannot go back to normal'

Boris Johnson was hit by a business backlash after devoting a major speech to a rose-tinted vision of the distant future, rather than offering solutions to the expected wave of Covid-driven job losses and the impending threat of a no-deal Brexit

Business groups welcomed the prime minister’s promises to invest in wind-power and infrastructure and to rely on the private sector to deliver a boost to national productivity once the pandemic is over. 

But they warned that companies need immediate help to get them through a “precarious” period ahead, when chancellor Rishi Sunak’s support for workers through the furlough scheme is withdrawn on 1 November and the UK switches to post-Brexit trading relations with the EU on 31 December. 

Labour accused the PM of “bluster” after he largely ignored the immediate challenges of preventing job losses and scaling up coronavirus testing to instead focus on his hopes for a Britain of hydrogen-powered trains and zero-carbon jets in 2030. 

In his keynote speech to the Conservative Party’s virtual annual conference, Mr Johnson said that the end of the pandemic must not mean a return to the normality of 2019,  but should usher in an “acceleration of social and economic change” to deliver a “bright future” in a decade’s time.

The prime minister promised to press ahead with manifesto plans to introduce long-term fixed-rate mortgages on 5 per cent deposits to reverse the “disgraceful” decline in home-ownership among the under-40s over the past decade.

He said the government would “explore” the possibility of one-to-one tuition in schools both for pupils who have fallen behind and those of exceptional abilities.

And he pledged to invest £160m in wind turbine manufacturing to help the UK become “the world leader in low-cost, clean power generation”, with offshore wind powering every home in the country by 2030.

But there was little flesh on the bones of his pledges, and business groups raised concerns about the imminent crisis facing many firms.

CBI director general Dame Carolyn Fairbairn said: "Too many firms are overwhelmed by the enormity of the Covid impact on their cashflow and confidence. Government can act today to show a clear and consistent rationale on restrictions, delivering targeted help as the virus’ impact evolves, and ramping up mass testing for the critical months ahead. 

"And there’s no avoiding the importance of delivering a new trade agreement with the EU for our economy.”

The British Chambers of Commerce welcomed the PM’s commitment to invest in clean, renewable energy.

But director general Adam Marshall said: “Businesses continue to face challenges in the here and now, and the economy remains on a knife-edge. The prime minister must take similarly bold measures to support jobs and improve the test and trace system to shore up business confidence in the months ahead.” 

And the Institute of Directors’ Roger Barker said that, while business leaders would  welcome the PM’s vow to put “wind in the sails of enterprise”, they were also "acutely aware of the precarious state of the economy, with the impending end of the furlough scheme and the conclusion of the Brexit transition period”.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said: “We have an unemployment crisis – with more job losses being announced every day. Yet this reality was missing from Boris Johnson's sunny speech.”

Setting out his plans to “build back better” after the Covid crisis, Mr Johnson said: “After all we have been through it isn’t enough just to go back to normal. We have lost too much. We have mourned too many.  

“We have been through too much frustration and hardship just to settle for the status quo ante – to think that life can go on as it was before the plague; and it will not."

History showed that events like wars, famines and plagues “are more often than not the trigger for an acceleration of social and economic change”, he said. 

Rather than contenting themselves with “a repair job” after such catastrophes, people tend to see them as “a time to learn and to improve on the world that went before”.

The PM said that the UK was suffering from “chronic underlying problems” even before the virus struck, with poor skills, inadequate transport infrastructure, insufficient homes and “far too many people… who felt ignored and left-out”.

“We cannot now define the mission of this country as merely to restore normality,” he said. “That isn’t good enough.”

Mr Johnson effectively admitted that he had been wrong to scoff at green energy, claiming that “some people 20 years ago said that it wouldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding”.

However the phrase was in fact used by Mr Johnson himself seven years ago in 2013, when he was Mayor of London.

Reeling off previous pledges to build or renovate 48 hospitals,  improve road and rail links, recruit 50,000 nurses and 20,000 police officers and “fix the injustice of care home funding”, Mr Johnson said: “We are resolving not to go back to 2019 but to do better.”

And he said that the key to a more prosperous future was to “raise the overall productivity of the country”.

He compared the situation to 1942, when a wartime government prepared to build a “new Jerusalem” when peace returned. In the event, the war was followed by the creation of the NHS and modern welfare state by Clement Attlee’s Labour government, after they ousted Churchill’s Conservatives in the 1945 election.

Mr Johnson rejected the argument that the failings of  the private sector-led test and trace system meant that the public sector should drive the UK’s rebuilding after the pandemic.

He said that the tough lockdown restrictions  and the massive taxpayer support provided by chancellor Rishi Sunak went against Conservative “instincts” but were adopted because there was “no reasonable alternative”.

Maintaining high state spending after the pandemic would lead to “disaster”, he warned, adding: “We must be clear that there comes a moment when the state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it…

“We must build back better by becoming more competitive, both in tax and regulation.”

Boris Johnson tells conference young, first-time buyers should have access to a 'long-term fixed-rate mortgage'

The PM also took a “culture war” swipe at Labour, saying: “We are proud of this country’s culture and history and traditions – they literally want to pull statues down, to rewrite the history of our country, to edit our national CV to make it look more politically correct.”

And he claimed that an unidentified “they” were “secretly scheming to overturn Brexit and take us back into the EU”.

Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said Mr Johnson had offered “bluster” in place of a plan to deal with the country’s immediate challenges. 

"The British people needed to hear the prime minister set out how he and his government will get a grip of the crisis,” said Ms Rayner.

“We end this Conservative conference as we started it: with a shambolic testing system, millions of jobs at risk and an incompetent government that has lost control of this virus and is holding Britain back.”

The Scottish National Party’s leader in Westminster, Ian Blackford, said: "The prime minister offered absolutely nothing to the millions of people who stand to lose their jobs, and see their incomes slashed, as a result of Tory cuts to the furlough scheme and the reckless decision to impose an extreme Brexit in the middle of a pandemic.”

And Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey said: "The prime minister's speech utterly failed to deliver a credible plan to beat coronavirus. With the government's tracing system in meltdown, a quarter of the UK in lockdown and millions set to face unemployment, this speech was nothing more than a pipe dream. 

“People and business need not only reassurance from the prime minister, but concrete measures to help them face the next six months of this pandemic. They got neither.”

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