Boris Johnson’s conference speech: what he said – and what he really meant

Our chief political commentator takes a look at what might have been running through the prime minister’s head 

John Rentoul
Tuesday 06 October 2020 13:20
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Boris Johnson says life 'cannot go back to normal'

What Boris Johnson said: Your government is working night and day to repel this virus, and we will succeed, just as this country has seen off every alien invader for the last thousand years.

And what he really meant: I am a war leader. 

What he said: We’ll be back to normal. When hairdressers will no longer look as though they’re handling radioactive isotopes. And when we can go and see our loved ones in care homes. And when we no longer have to greet each other by touching elbows, as in some giant national version of the birdie dance.

What he meant: Winston Churchill could turn a phrase; so can I. 

What he said: History teaches us that events of this magnitude – wars, famines, plagues, events that affect the vast bulk of humanity, as this virus has – they don’t just come and go. They are, more often than not, the trigger for an acceleration of social and economic change.

What he meant: Don’t bother me with details of Excel spreadsheets, I am here to give you the big picture. 

What he said: I’ve read a lot of nonsense recently about how my own bout of covid has somehow robbed me of my mojo.

What he meant: There’s nothing wrong with me, I tell you. This is what I look like. 

What he said: In the depths of the Second World War, when just about everything had gone wrong, the government sketched out a vision of the postwar New Jerusalem that they wanted to build. And that’s what we’re doing now.

What he meant: I am a war leader. Churchill and Attlee rolled into one. 

What he said: It’s clear from covid that we need the economic robustness to deal with whatever the next cosmic spanner may be, hurtling towards us in the dark.

What he meant: Poetry is what it is. Worthy of Douglas Adams, don’t you think? Wasted on you lot, really. 

Boris Johnson says he remembers how people used to 'sneer' at wind farms

What he said: We’ll do what all governments have shirked for decades: we will fix the injustice of care home funding, bringing the magic of averages to the rescue of millions. 

What he meant: I will continue to shirk the task of fixing social care. I will hint at an insurance-based system but not actually spell it out. 

What he said: I want to … explore the value of one-to-one teaching, both for pupils who are in danger of falling behind, and for those of exceptional abilities … [and break down] the senseless barrier between further education and higher education ...

What he meant: I have copied out the platitudes from the education section of every prime minister’s conference speech since John Major’s.

What he said: We must be clear that there comes a moment when the state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it. I have a simple message first for all those on the left of the Labour Party: we think everything can be funded by Uncle Sugar, the tax payer. 

What he meant: I have a simple message for the chancellor. 

What he said: It wasn’t the state that made the gloves and the masks and the ventilators that we needed at such speed. It was the private sector, with its rational interest in innovation and competition and market share and, yes, sales. We must not draw the wrong economic conclusion from this crisis. 

What he meant: Do not listen to Rishi: he got a bit carried away yesterday with his “overwhelming might of the British state” nonsense. 

What he said: We need to fix our broken housing market.

What he meant: Prime ministers always say it in their first year or two in office; after that it’ll be what the opposition says.

What he said: Yes, we will transform our sclerotic planning system.

What he meant: That’s what I say. What I do is another matter entirely, driven by the number of votes in southern Tory seats. 

What he said: We need now to take forward one of the key proposals of our manifesto, of giving young first time buyers the chance to take out a long-term fixed-rate mortgage of up to 95 per cent of the value of the home … We believe that this policy could create two million more owner occupiers, the biggest expansion of homeownership since the 1980s.

What he meant: Back to boom and bust. It’s what Margaret Thatcher would have wanted.

What he said: I want you to imagine that you’re arriving in Britain in 2030 … where young people … bring up children in the neighbourhoods where they grew up themselves.

What he meant: Raw chunk of cod sociology: red wall voters don’t want their children going down south. 

What he said: Going for picnics in the new wild belts that now mark the landscape.

What he meant: And the spirit of Fotherington-Thomas shall skip through the water meadows. 

What he said: You will see a country that scrupulously controls its own borders but which is in some ways more cosmopolitan than ever before. 

What he meant: Right-wing cake and left-wing cake and eating it too. 

What he said: Even in the darkest moments we can see the bright future ahead, and we can see how to build it, and we are going to build it together.

What he meant: I have no idea what I am doing. Help me out here. 

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