Boris Johnson's speech underscored the new ideological positioning of the Tories
Fun Boris is back — at least, that’s the message he wants to send as the first virtual Conservative Party Conference comes to an end. Despite the seriousness of the times we live in, the Prime Minister was keen to exude energy. He attacked the “nonsense” rumours that his brush with Covid has “robbed me of my mojo — this is self-evident drivel”, and challenged naysayers to “arm wrestling, leg wrestling, Cumberland wrestling, sprint off, you name it.”
Of course, there is a risk that this will backfire — we are in serious times: the spread of Covid seems to be increasing, universities are moonlighting as prisons, and the deadline for negotiating the UK’s future relationship with the EU is drawing ever closer.
But Boris effectively ignored this. His was a speech about the big picture — the long-term. How we can ‘build back better’ (the conference’s theme) once the thorny issues of Covid and Brexit are dealt with. He asked us to think about 2030, not 2021.
The language he used also signifies the changing ideological positioning of the Conservative Party, begun under May and continued with aplomb under her successor. Levelling up public services was described in terms of social justice. Covid was a chance to reshape the state and build back better. Green energy is the future, with ambitious targets to increase wind power (gone is Boris’ scepticism — there will be no Cameronite muttering of ‘green crap’ today). The Thatcherites no longer run the asylum.
There was, of course, still some red meat for the members. This is a conference speech after all, and no conference speech is complete without attacking the opposition — although Boris didn’t focus on Keir Starmer (although he did label him Captain Hindsight), but rather attacked Labour as a whole — a canny move, given recent polling which shows that although people like Starmer, they do not think Labour has changed much since the Corbyn-era.
Boris’ defence of British history will play well with people who are sick of being told they’re racists for being proud of their country or made to feel guilty for the colour of their skin. One of the reasons the Conservatives were so unpopular in the 1990s and early 2000s was because they looked uncomfortable with modern Britain — now they’re trying to paint Labour as uncomfortable with Britain and its past.
Overall, this speech was classic Boris — witty, big on vision, but small on details. It’ll go down well with members, but whether the general public thinks the tone fits the occasion remains to be seen.