Boris Johnson addressed Conservative Party conference in person for the first time since his 2019 general election victory with a speech that encapsulated all of the strengths and weaknesses of his political project.
It displayed a Prime Minister at the height of his powers, flaunting his grip on the Conservative Party and his ability to take it with him even if that means going against, in some areas, its ideological instincts. There were rumbles of concern at conference about the direction of the party under Johnson, but the speech – displaying the optimism and humour that are considered his greatest political strengths – showed the party’s determination to swallow those concerns and stick behind him and his perceived winning ability.
But the weaknesses of the Johnson project were there for all to see as well. He faces stark criticism this morning for a speech that was low on detail, “unserious” as the Mirror describes it, and failing to speak directly to the problems the country faces in the coming months.
Right-wing think tanks, meanwhile, have expressed the criticisms that MPs and members are determined to ignore, with the Adam Smith Institute describing the speech as “economically illiterate”, echoed by other right-wing think tanks like the TaxPayers’ Alliance and Institute for Economic Affairs. Businesses are describing the speech as incoherent, and have accused the Prime Minister of treating them like a “bogeyman” over labour shortages.
Will Johnson come to regret framing the current labour shortages and expected cost of living crisis as a welcome and necessary transition to a high-wage, high-productivity economy? Many within and without the Conservative Party worry that he is embracing labour shortages too closely with an argument that doesn’t stand up.
There are huge questions over how Johnson’s speech will be looked back on in a year’s, or even a month’s, time. Could this be the moment before it all unravels, with a speech that spooked business and failed to speak in detail about the real concerns and challenges facing the country, as well as laying bare how far Johnson is straying – to the disquiet of many in his party – from Conservative orthodoxy? Or will it be the apotheosis of Johnson’s prime ministerial career as we recall with awe his unique ability to withstand any crisis, and bring both country and party with him?