Peter Donnelly, Editor
Last Tuesday saw the first Conservative Party conference of its kind – the annual virtual party conference, not in Birmingham as scheduled, pre-Covid, but in an anonymous back-room, make-shift stage in Whitehall. There the Prime Minister addressed a sombre Conservative Party faithful in a time of unabating uncertainty.
In language and spirit which echoed the wartime invocations of Churchill, on the precipice of global crisis, instilling pride and hope in his people, Boris Johnson’s speech to the Conservative Conference last week, was notably short on the particulars of how the UK would progress to the position of a “New Jerusalem.”
The nation’s battle against the Coronavirus pandemic was unsurprisingly front and centre of his 30-minute address. The introductory address honoured the resilience and determinativeness of the emergency health and care workers, the Armed Forces as well as the “bounding, boundless devotion of Captain Tom Moore.” Captain Sir Tom Moore, a 100-year old Second World War veteran from Yorkshire, was Knighted by the Queen, following his extraordinary fundraising efforts for the NHS. His story and his back-garden crusade to accrue £32,795,065 in donations for the NHS’ fight against Covid-19, were defining images of the national effort during the first lockdown.
The Prime Minister could not be ridiculed for being under ambitious. Ambition and Boris Johnson have proven to be interchangeable in the past and this aspect of his inimitable character, and despite the current times, is showing no signs of waning, if his conference rhetoric retorts are anything to go by. This was further strengthened the Prime Minister’s forthright rejection of reports which had suggested his own “bout of Covid” had robbed him of his “mojo.” Such murmurings were nothing short of “nonsense,” as he served up a brief menu of his own fitness regime, losing 26 pounds over the last six months.
The recurrent logistic issues with the Government’s ‘Test and Trace’ system were tackled by Boris Johnson. Two weekends ago thousands of positive cases went unreported due to a system failure which Johnson explained to have been as a result of the data becoming “truncated.”
Boris Johnson was slimmer in more ways than one; not least in his skirting of the periodically increasing unemployment figures in the UK. Last month, the Office for National Statistics reported that the UK unemployment rate stood at 4.1%, which was 0.3 percentage points higher than the previous year.
What Johnson did allude to however, was the Government’s plan to initiate a prudent programme of conservative economic engineering which would see a balancing of the public finances, after the unmitigated injection of borrowing during the worst of the pandemic. as the country emerges from the doldrums of Covid.
“History teaches us,” he said, “that events of this magnitude….events that affect the bulk of humanity….are a trigger for an acceleration of social and economic change.” Since the outbreak of the pandemic commentators have questioned the vast levels of public spending, from March, which has arguably signalled a departure from the fiscally reserved doctrines inherent in traditional British Conservativism. Johnson aired his view that as a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative he was uncomfortable with the expansion of the state over the previous six-month period, which had stagnated economic independence and free enterprise.
Institute For Government Director, Bronwen Maddox, viewed the Conservative Party Conference as “a deliberate attempt to define what it is to be Conservative in the age of coronavirus. The Prime Minister set out to rebut the charge that a wave of public spending has obliterated the difference between the two main parties.”
In a report published by the Institute for Government, it was predicted that the cost of Covid public borrowing, 2020-2021 would likely be a staggering, bottom-line bill of £317 billion.
There has also been a raising of concerns that the Conservative’s internal party unity could be on the brink of fracture spurred by public dissatisfaction with the Government’s public health response. A recent YouGov survey suggested that a staggering 30% of Britons approved of the Government’s response and handling of Covid-19.
The ‘Cummings Affair,’ christened so after the Prime Minister’s Chief Advisor Dominic Cummings’ mysterious excursion from London to County Durham, in the midst of the pandemic, did not help matters of confidence and popularity. When news of Cummings’ movements reached the media, commentators and politicians disatisfied with Cummings’ account suggested that if the individual who helped formulate Coronavirus regulations could himself subvert them eithout repercussions, then what sort of precedent did that set for the wider public.
Manifesto Commitments and how to Win the North
His speech, which chimed rather harmoniously with the broader Conservative ‘Build Back Better’ drive, received somewhat scant media coverage owing to the preoccupation with the current outbreak of the second Covid-19 wave.
The 2019 General Election manifesto pledge of a construction of 48 more hospitals between now and 2030 and the recruitment of an extra 50,000 nurses was restated. Fulfilment of the pledge has clearly been achieving momentum with a recruitment of 14,000 extra nurses since the administration came into office following the Conservative’s resounding success in the December election last year.
Boris Johnson’s Northern Powerhouse speech in Rotherham in Summer 2019 may seem like an age ago, but a restatement of the Government’s economic and social commitment to the Northern English regions was emphasised in the Conference address. Retaining these traditional Labour votes, which were balloted on an unprecedented scale in the December 2019 General Election, will require constant nurturing. Nick Forbes, incumbent Labour leader of Newcastle City Council, hit out at the Government’s lack of progress in its “partnership” with the Northern regions.
5,000 of the 20,000 extra police officers, the Conservative Government has pleged to reach, have been recruited. Johnson noticeably directed a ‘wake-up’ call to Chief Constables and Senior Police Area Commanders, being emphatic that the he and the Home Secretary, Priti Patel needed “results.” backing police to stop early release of violent offenders.
It is not that no progress has been made, on the contrary, Boris Johnson himself noted, “Town by town we are rooting out county lines drug gangs causing so much misery….our agenda is basic social justice.”
Boris Johnson emphasised the value of one-to-one teaching which could serve to supplement the lost teaching time for children during the Covid crisis. GCSE and A’ Level examinations are scheduled to go ahead this year, albeit a number of weeks later than usually held.
Details were given of the Government’s pledge to give every adult four years of funded higher-level education and apprenticeships , which Johnson expects to accelerate the advancement of the existing skills base in the country.
The ‘Green’ Economy
The ‘Green’ economy, which will create “millions of jobs,” was emphasised as integral to the UK’s future prosperity. Johnson, during the course of his speech, made a lofty proposal that low cost, clean power generation would be, by 2030, would alone power UK homes and businesses.
No keynote political speech, lest the Conservative Party Conference, in 2020 would be complete without a mention(s) of the B-bogeyman – Brexit. It featured, with Boris Johnson re-stressing that the EU’s negotiating teams would need to engage with the UK’s negotiating team, headed by Lord Frost, in a way which was conducive to reaching a palatable Free Trade agreement. Good faith was needed all round. A deadline of this Thursday, 15th October, has been set by the British side, to determine if UK-EU Trade talks are progressing at a satisfactory rate.
The Government caused consternation, within both its own and Opposition ranks, when Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis told the Commons in September, that the UK Internal Market bill would break International Law. The bill would see Executive Ministers entrusted with discretionary powers to amend parts of the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement, including the Northern Ireland Protocol, painstakingly reached in January 2020, unilaterally.
Infrastructure & Transport
Development of existing and planned infrastructure between the four home nations, has been a recurrent objective which Johnson has consistently emphasised. The HS2 rail project, which when completed will connect London, cities in the West Midlands and Leeds, replete with its chaotic baggage, appears to be finally gaining traction. The notable – and some may say pipe-dream scheme – of a Celtic crossing, a fixed connection spanning the Irish Sea, between Antrim and south-west Scotland, was announced to be currently under an independent review.
The proposal has been the site of confrontation between the UK Government and the devolved Scottish Government in Holyrood. Scottish Secretary of State Allister Jack has voiced his support for a tunnel – similar to that of the Eurostar between England and France. Scottish Government transport secretary told the Daily Record that “the Scottish Government has not investigated or undertaken any feasibility for a fixed link between Scotland and Northern Ireland and has no current plans to do so,” stressing that £20billion would be better spent on providing for public services in both respective regions.
Constitutional Sticking Points
Boris Johnson made scant reference to the issue of Union unity, with a particular emphasis in Scotland. The 2021 Scottish Parliamentary election which will prove decisive in the continuing row between Westminster and Holyrood over a second Scottish Independence Referendum. If as is predicted, the SNP receive another resounding majority, in May, pressure will inevitably pile on the Government to concede to ‘Indy Ref II,’ despite the former Scottish premier, Alex Salmond saying that the 2014 Referendum would be a once-in-a-lifetime vote. The stage could well be set for a constiutional exchange like no other, with the long arm of the judiciary arriving on the scene.
Boris Johnson’s speech at the Conservative Conference, may have been one of many things which had to adapt to the current times of the ‘New Normal.’ The results of the pledges and committments emanating from the strategy to ‘Build, Back, Better,’ within the Prime Minister’s address remain now await implementation. With limited financial resources, in an economic landscape facing a bleak Winter, implementation not only needs to be done but also needs to be seen to be done.
You can read the full transcript of the Prime Minister’s address to the 2020 ‘virtual’ Conservative Party Conference here: https://www.conservatives.com/news/boris-johnson-read-the-prime-ministers-keynote-speech-in-full