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The case for

Boris Johnson

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images

Was there any substance behind the jokes in the PM’s conference speech last week?

How did his speech go down?
It was seen as a typical piece of Johnsonian grandstanding. “I know that everyone starts to worry as they get old that the country is going to the dogs,” said Jeremy Clarkson in The Sunday Times, “but this time I really do think that everyone younger than me, which is everyone, has taken leave of their senses.” Once we had people who wanted to fix the country, like Lord Carrington. Now “we have Borrie Johnson… saying that actually nothing is wrong at all and then banging on about LGBT sandwiches”.

What about Tory MPs?
The adulation of the Tory activists in Manchester may have been genuine, said Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer, but many of the MPs were faking it. Your typical Tory MP is horrified by a government “presiding over chaos, raising taxes, bashing business and encouraging wage inflation while having no serious plan for mitigating the disruption”. When Johnson wasn’t making jokes, wrote one editorial writer, he was invoking the spirit of Margaret Thatcher, “a singularly inappropriate comparison”. The whole conference seemed “an exercise in fiddling while Rome burns”.

How does Downing Street answer the criticism?
Not all the commentary was so damning. Ever since his election victory, said Dan Hodges in The Mail on Sunday, even Cabinet ministers have been struggling to answer the question: what does Boris want power for? But now he and his “inner circle” think they’ve found an answer: “a radical restructuring of the economy [and] a robust recalibration of his party’s relationship with big business”.

What’s behind this?
A belief that British business isn’t productive enough, and that if it were, it would be able to pay higher wages. It’s a charge that sends business into “paroxysms of rage”, says The Sunday Telegraph’s Janet Daley. But the problem of poor productivity has been “endemic” in British industry for decades – and it still is, thanks to our history of bitter industrial relations. For years the trade unions fiercely resisted modernisation, fearing redundancies. Wages stayed notoriously low, which had the effect of lowering productivity further, as workers sought ways to justify “precious overtime”. Inefficiency, low productivity and low wages were thus “locked into the British business scene”.

Didn’t Thatcher weaken union power?
Yes, hugely. In the 1980s she broke the power of the old trade unions not just through legislation, but by changing the national attitude to social mobility and aspiration. Thatcher’s revolution was achieved by rhetoric as well as by policy: the Johnson credo is presumably intended to take it a step further.

Don’t high wages meaner higher costs?
Higher wages bring higher business costs and possibly higher prices. But, as Daley says, they can also mean the creation of “more disposable income and an invigorated market capitalism”. Everything will depend on whether Boris’s optimistic talk of a “high wage society” can lift the political mood, as Thatcher did in the 1980s.

Isn’t immigration a better answer?
Downing Street thinks not, however popular it is with Telegraph readers (for the cheap labour) and Guardian ones (for moral reasons). In private Johnson is “withering” about industry leaders’ addiction to low-cost foreign migrants, says Tim Shipman in The Sunday Times, comparing demands for more EU worker visas to pleas for “just a few more shots of heroin”.

Isn’t Johnson’s approach more old Labour than Tory?
His message certainly resonates with parts of Keir Starmer’s party. Look at my patch, says one Labour MP in an industrial seat. “There’s a factory where a third of the workers were from eastern Europe, and they left almost overnight [after Brexit]. But now they’ve been replaced by local people. And the way management did that was by offering better pay, better conditions, and offering to sit down with the unions.” What’s Labour’s answer to our industrial problems, he wonders.

What does Keir Starmer think?
Who knows? In the summer the Labour leader visited the seats the party lost in 2019 so he could listen to voters. “We now know what he thought he heard,” says Dan Hodges. Red wall voters “want him to write 12,000-word essays for the Fabians, tell men they can have a cervix, call for a female James Bond and demand the return of cheap eastern European labour”. While Boris plays “cheerleader-in-chief”, Starmer is left to play “moaner-in-chief”, says Clare Foges in The Times. All he can offer is “furrow-browed complaint”. The PM will have an easy time accusing the Labour leader of “gloomily talking our nation down during one of our darkest hours”.

But can Johnson deliver?
That’s the problem. He’s set himself “a very hard test”, says a senior Tory, “of raising wages when inflation is going to go through the roof”. Even if people do earn a bit more, higher prices will probably make them worse off overall in the short term. “It’s setting yourself up to fail.” One question no one can answer, adds a veteran commentator, is: “How do you persuade young Britons to take on all these jobs, even if they’re paid higher wages?” Then there’s the question of whether Johnson has the self-discipline to drive his reforms home. His attention, says Hodges, will soon drift towards the “green jamboree” of the Cop26 summit. Winter may well see the re-emergence of Covid and fresh pressure on supply chains. “Each will test Boris’s focus.”

What if he fails?
Never underestimate the appeal of an optimist, says Martin Ivens in Bloomberg. “Political Tiggers tend to outlive the Eeyores.” After 18 months of the pandemic and years of tedious debate about Brexit, British voters want to start having some fun. Johnson’s boosterism is far more in tune with the popular mood than Labour’s woebegone message, which, as the PM teased, has all the appeal of a “damp tea towel”. Alas for those who long for his comeuppance, says Foges, “it’s not going to come any time soon”.