One interpretation of Boris Johnson’s announcement-packed Conservative conference speech – which included a pledge to drastically increase the amount the UK spends on offshore wind, to roll out 95 per cent mortgages to help first-time buyers, to plant more trees and to introduce one-to-one tuition in state schools – is that the new policies are primarily about distracting attention from the government’s Covid-19 strategy.
That there is little detail on their substance beyond the headlines further supports this view, but I think it’s precisely wrong: one of the major strengths of Johnson’s Downing Street operation is that it grasps how little attention the average person pays to the cut and thrust of politics.The government’s coronavirus problems are primarily the ones that you can’t help noticing: the amount of time you wait for a test, whether your child’s school remains open or whether your business closes.
It really doesn’t matter what the Prime Minister, or any other government politician, says in their conference speech if they can’t get those coronavirus problems fixed. What matters is whether people believe these problems could be solved by any politician. The source for optimism at the top of the Conservative Party is that, according to their own focus groups, people think that no-one predicted or planned for a pandemic and that the government has therefore, unavoidably, been unable to tackle it effectively. The attacks on Keir Starmer for speaking in hindsight and not having a positive set of proposals are all about reinforcing that perception.
But they also know that this position has a strategic weakness: it is contingent on people continuing to believe that the government is able to deliver outside of the fight against the novel coronavirus. It’s one thing not to be able to tackle a once-in-a-generation health crisis: it’s quite another not even to be able to plant trees, roll out new mortgage products or improve education. If the government can’t deliver on those issues, then it risks losing its shield for coronavirus related issues: that it is doing the best it can, and that no-one else could do better. Progress on other issues isn’t a distraction from the government’s failures on coronavirus: it is a prerequisite for landing its argument over coronavirus.