Conservative Party Conference Was The Boris Johnson Show – But Can His Act Survive The Winter?
Deprived of flagship policy announcements and relegated to a makeshift 600-seat auditorium at the back of the exhibition hall, ministers at this week’s Conservative Party Conference in Manchester at times felt like little more than a warm up act for Boris Johnson.
When the Prime Minister’s headline slot finally arrived on Wednesday he too kept proceedings light on policy, but his supporters, some of whom had queued since dawn to see the speech, were delighted nonetheless, describing the joke-filled 45 minute performance as “exciting”, “energetic” and “optimistic”.
Using a purpose-built stage reserved exclusively for his speech, set up in another part of the building, made a significant point. It’s a pretty heavy-handed piece of symbolism to very literally not share your stage with anyone else, but that is what Johnson did.
His first in-person conference since the party won a stonking 80 seat majority in the 2019 General Election was the Boris Johnson show, rather than a platform for the aims of the wider Conservative party.
But as he leaves the conference bubble in Manchester and heads back into a country still facing a fuel crisis, energy woes, staff shortages and a Universal Credit cut, Johnson risks opening a yawning chasm between his boosterism rhetoric and the difficult everyday realities faced by millions of ordinary people.
One minister told PoliticsHome they believed Johnson had managed to win over former Labour voters by successfully arguing that a vote for him was a vote for something different to the previous decade of Conservative rule – the ‘Boris Conservative party’.
At conference, he was basking in that success, the all-powerful leader of a party re-made in his image, praising “the spirit of the NHS nurses and the entrepreneurs” of this country.
“It's all going horribly right,” he remarked earlier this week and joked that journalists would be stuck for rows to write about, confident that dissent within the party has been quashed.
One area of discontent among the wider party in recent weeks has been a manifesto-breaking rise in National Insurance to pay for social care, but defiant Johnson shut that down for good in his speech this morning.
"Margaret Thatcher would not have ignored this meteorite that has just crashed through the public finances,” he remarked, referring to the economic shockwaves of Covid.
"She would have wagged her finger and said that more borrowing now is just higher interest rates and even higher taxes later." Nobody in the room demurred.
The entire Cabinet flanked the front row, after it was made clear their attendance was mandatory. Alok Sharma even flew in from Italy in a very public show of support just weeks after a reshuffle confirmed loyalty is rewarded above almost all else.
Ahead of conference there was much speculation over how Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss would fare, with the new foreign secretary now seen as the obvious rival to the Chancellor for the tag of PM-in-waiting.
But although they were both big draws at their speeches and events, without any substantive policy to announce they were denied the chance of being the star attraction.
“Boris is still the boss,” one 2019-intake MP told PoliticsHome. Discussing which minister had enjoyed the best conference, one activist interjected: “It doesn’t matter, everyone is only here for Boris.”
Darlings of the party grassroots like Jacob Rees-Mogg are now in Cabinet and therefore obliged to toe the party line, leaving them unable to make mischief at fringe events, as Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan had done at Labour’s conference in Brighton last week.
The contrast in the leaders’ speeches was also stark, Sir Keir Starmer having to reach deep into his background and upbringing to explain his values and win over scepticism within his party as well across the electorate.
Johnson needed no such personal story to sell his brand of optimism, and only took around half the time Starmer spent delivering his 7,000-word epic last week.Where the Labour leader avoided name-calling and explicit personal attacks – calling Johnson not a bad man but a “trivial” one – the PM reeled off a series of jokes and likened his opposite number to a “a seriously rattled bus conductor pushed this way and that by a Corbynista mob of sellotape-spectacled sans-culottes”.
But while he found time for quips about “corduroyed communist cosmonaut” and a desire to “build back beaver”, Johnson did not mention the ongoing fuel crisis once.
Nor the fact today is the day the £20 Universal Credit uplift is removed, or news of spiralling wholesale gas prices putting more energy firms out of business, prompting claims he is living “in a parallel universe”.
After the speech Johnson’s spokesperson rejected claims he was ignoring the problems faced by people across the country, and defended the policy-light speech as being a “mission statement” for how the country grows back after the pandemic.
“The speech today was about setting out his broader mission to unite and level up the country," they said.Earlier in the week a group of protesters demanded that Johnson take action to help prevent the culling of hundreds of thousands of pigs due to a shortage of abattoir butchers, the latest issue thrown up by the ongoing supply chain problems.
Downing Street has also admitted only 27 lorry drivers have applied for the 300 emergency visas available to alleviate the fuel crisis, not 127 as Johnson had told the media.
The PM insisted it was not his job to “fix every problem in business”, and said the government cannot “patch and mend” every issue in the supply chain.
But with further dire warnings about more shortages in the run up to Christmas, Johnson may be wishing he could stay in his conference kingdom a little while longer.
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