His “Build Back Better” conference speech was typical of the man; wildly enthusiastic, over-the-top optimistic, full of jokes and clever asides, and very light in terms of policy. If Johnson was a music hall act his name would be top of the bill, an almost certain guarantee that bottoms would occupy every seat in the theatre.
To the absolute fury of his opponents, he is one of the few celebrities famous enough to be commonly known by just their first name. Elvis, Oprah, Madonna, Adele – and Boris.
His speech delighted the Conservative faithful, and many will have returned home convinced that their party is on target for what would be a record-breaking fifth consecutive general election victory.
Well, perhaps but I am not so sure. Certainly Boris is fun to watch, but his boosterism and banter will only go so far. And there are a lot of big political problems – some of them of the Government’s own making – rapidly heading our way.
Take for example the looming energy crisis, with warnings from analysts this week that household bills could rise by hundreds of pounds a year in 2022 because of a 550 per cent increase in gas prices since January.
The Government can’t be blamed for price spikes in international markets, but it can be blamed for running down coal, neglecting nuclear and fracking, and relying on unreliable and intermittent wind power, all of which has left us overly reliant on imported gas and incredibly vulnerable to these price shocks.
I am not convinced that Johnson’s showbiz razzmatazz will count for very much in the depths of winter when people cannot afford to heat their homes properly and the elderly and poor begin to die in large numbers.
What about the much talked about “levelling up” agenda to reward the “red wall” seats in the North and Midlands, which delivered Johnson’s 2019 thumping election victory by switching from Labour to the Conservatives?
Well, there has been a lot of talk, but not much action. In his speech Johnson announced a £3,000 a head “levelling up” premium to persuade science and maths teachers to work in schools in deprived areas. But later it turned out this was something of a rehash of a previous scheme launched in 2019 and subsequently abandoned.
Instead we have heard rumours from “government sources” that the HS2 link from Birmingham to Leeds is to be downgraded, or scrapped entirely, to save £40bn. The North, and Yorkshire in particular, seems to be getting a raw deal, rather than any “levelling up”. The Government’s “Build Back Better” plan doesn’t appear to include “Building Beyond Birmingham”.
What would help the North to “level up” would be economic growth – more jobs and more investment in education and transport.
And the key to achieving economic growth, as has been proved Conservative Chancellors down the years, is keeping taxes low. Just ask Nigel Lawson.
But the current administration has decided to do exactly the opposite by massively increasing taxes, particularly on the less well off. There is a danger that these big government, big spending, high taxation policies will clobber any economic recovery as we emerge out of the pandemic.
Johnson was on sounder ground with his vision of a “high skilled, high wage” economy. Contrary to the warnings of Remainers that there would be a race to the bottom in terms of pay and conditions when we left the EU, the opposite has happened and wages are rising.
The Prime Minister warned companies they could no longer rely on cheap labour from the EU to fill gaps, but had to invest in training for home-grown workers and pay them better. Such talk may risk upsetting business leaders, but it will play well in the “red wall” and is a key benefit of Brexit for the lower paid.
Having said that, if inflation reaches four per cent – twice the Bank of England target – as some experts predict, then much of the wage increases will be swallowed up by higher prices.
So, a fine barnstorming performance by Johnson, but as gas prices rise, tax increases bite and inflation lets rip, will Boris continue to be the star of the show as far as voters are concerned?
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