Boris Johnson tried to raise the spirits of his party and the country in his closing speech to the Conservatives’ virtual conference by mapping out an upbeat vision of the UK in 2030.
Talking about the sunlit uplands is an old political trick. It did answer one of the grumbles from the many Tory MPs losing confidence in him: that he has lost his trademark bounce and optimism. He addressed the doubters head-on, insisting his own brush with coronavirus had not robbed him of his mojo.
But the weakness of speaking about a country transformed in 10 years’ time - by a “levelling up” agenda made even more urgent by the pandemic, a green industrial revolution making the UK world leader in wind power and Brexit - is that it will not raise his party’s or the public’s sights from the nation's immediate crisis.
The prime minister was right to devote his opening section to Covid-19. But he was wrong not to address the government's mistakes, including the latest computer glitch which hampered attempts to trace the close contacts of 16,000 people who tested positive.
In his keenness to speak about the future, it almost sounded as if the pandemic were already in the past. So there was no mention of the next challenge: a jobs crisis that will soon be deepened by the government’s decision to end its furlough scheme at the end of this month.
Nor did he answer the public’s criticism of him. In a poll of 8,000 people by Lord Ashcroft, the Tories’ former deputy chair, the words most often chosen to describe Johnson were “incompetent” and “out of his depth.”
Too much of the 37-minute speech was aimed at his own party rather than the voters – a recognition that Johnson is in trouble close to home. Normally, a party conference 10 months after a huge election victory would be a moment of celebration. In the event, Johnson was lucky that the real conference did not take place in Birmingham as planned.
Although he would have received a loyally supportive response today, the doubts about whether the party had elected the right man for daunting task facing the country would have surfaced during the event.
There were plenty of reassuring words aimed at his rebellious MPs. He constantly reminded them of the real enemy – Labour –falsely claiming the party wanted to “overturn Brexit and take us back into the EU.” He insisted he was not a big state, big spending politician like Labour's, repeatedly stressing the economic recovery would be led by the private sector.
He admitted his government has been forced into “erosions of liberty that we deeply regret,” and into expanding “the role of the state – from lockdown enforcement to the many bail-outs and subsidies – that go against our instincts.”
But his attempt to show his MP critics that is on the same page as them is unlikely to succeed. Many believe the restrictions have already gone too far. Some will vote against the “rule of six” today and a bigger rebellion looms over the 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants. They think they have found a cabinet champion in Rishi Sunak, the chancellor.
In his conference speech yesterday and a round of media interviews today, Sunak was scrupulously loyal to Johnson, keen to head off the narrative of a repeat of the Blair-Brown era. Yet the chancellor also managed to send a signal to his growing band of backbench admirers.
He admitted his frustration about the 10pm closing time, but defended it as better than closing pubs (a neat reminder that he blocked this). Sunak said the cabinet “is not a collection of robots” but a group making “really difficult judgments.”
The MPs who want livelihoods to be prioritised as much as lives suspect Johnson is not in their camp, a view unlikely to change as a result of this speech.
In an era of normal politics, Johnson’s look at the distant horizon would have been more impressive. He rightly set the goal of not merely returning to the pre-Covid normality, admitting the pandemic would speed up economic and social change.
Yet his promise of a “new Jerusalem” to match the welfare state mapped out under his hero Winston Churchill in the depths of the second world war was not the best parallel. Churchill won the war, but then lost the election.
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