Boris Johnson defends NHS tax rises and commits to teachers in level up promise in headline Conservative conference speech

The Prime Minister has defended his manifesto-breaking tax rises and recommitted his drive to “level up” the country in his first headline party conference speech since the 2019 Conservative landslide.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers his keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester (PA)

After last year’s speech was held virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Boris Johnson also warned that there is a “difficult” economic recovery ahead as he tries to shift the nation to a “high wage” and “high skilled” economy post-Brexit.

However there was little mention of the long-awaited Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme, on which Mr Johnson had suggested there would be more information this week.

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Amid a run of crowd-pleasing jokes, Boris Johnson told a crowd of Tory members that a “tide of anxiety” was washing across the NHS as waiting times pile up and delayed surgeries become more urgent, just weeks after he announced a multi-billion pound tax hike to “fix” health and social care.

Mr Johnson recalled lying in a hospital bed last year and seeing a hole in the ground, noting: “They seemed to be digging a hole for something or indeed someone, possibly me.

“But the NHS saved me and our wonderful nurses pulled my chestnuts out of that Tartarian pit, and I went back on a visit the other day and I saw that the hole had been filled in with three or four gleaming storeys of a new paediatrics unit.

“There you have a metaphor for how we must build back better now. We have a huge hole in the public finances, we spent £407 billion on Covid support and our debt now stands at over £2 trillion, and waiting lists will almost certainly go up before they come down.”

In the 45-minute-long address that was otherwise short on policy, Mr Johnson did lay out a new “levelling up premium” to help get more teachers into schools that need them.

“To level up, on top of the extra £14 billion we’re putting into education, on top of the increase that means every teacher starts with a salary of £30,000, we’re announcing today a levelling-up premium of up to £3,000 to send the best maths and science teachers to the places that need them most.”

Despite a week of heavy hinting that a big announcement on Northern Powerhouse Rail would feature at the Manchester event, there was nothing more than a repetition of the old promise that the Government was committed to the project to connect cities across the north.

Mr Johnson told the Manchester conference: "Transport is one of the supreme leveller-uppers and we are making the big generational changes shirked by previous governments.

“We will do Northern Powerhouse rail, we will link up the cities of the midlands and the north.”

The lack of detail on the major infrastructure scheme and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ comments earlier this week which have led to speculation about the future of HS2 through Yorkshire have led one mayor to call for clarity.

Mayor of West Yorkshire Tracy Brabin said: “Over the past week, rumours and speculation have been rife about the future of transport in West Yorkshire and the north.

“Today we looked forward to hearing the Prime Minister put those rumours to bed and finally commit to delivering the integrated transport system that the north deserves and needs.

“Sadly, what we got was more rhetoric veiled under the slogan of “Build Back Better” and another promise of “levelling up”.