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Boris Johnson has promised to move the entire UK towards high-wage and high-skill employment in an often veering speech to the Conservative Party conference in which he accused previous Labour and Tory governments of “delay and dither”.
The prime minister promised that he would lead a “reforming government”, adding that it is already a “can-do government that got Brexit done, is getting the vaccine rollout done and is going to get social care done”.
Committing once again to “level up” all areas of the UK, he added: “We are dealing with the biggest underlying issues of our economy and society, the problems that no government has had the guts to tackle before.”
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Here are the key moments from his first in-person conference address in Manchester.
1. The economy
The prime minister used the speech “to sell a new economic vision”, said BBC political correspondent Nick Eardley, one in which mass immigration is “gone” to be “replaced with higher wages and better conditions to encourage people into key sectors”.
Promising to “reform” the economic system, he pledged to move away from the pre-Brexit system of “low wages, low growth, low skills and low productivity, all of it enabled and assisted by uncontrolled immigration”.
“The answer is to control immigration, to allow people of talent to come to this country but not to use immigration as an excuse for failure to invest in people, in skills and in the equipment or machinery they need to do their jobs,” he said.
Instead he said his government would oversee the introduction of “high-wage and high-skill employment” across the country, adding that this shift would also move the UK to “a low-tax economy – as that is what the people of this country need and deserve”.
The problem for the prime minister is that “for many people life feels a bit uncertain”, said the BBC’s Eardley, with “fears in the Conservative Party too about the cost of living over winter” clashing with his economic optimism.
“While Johnson sells his economic plan for the future, many will want assurances about the next few weeks and months,” he added.
2. NHS and social care
Covid-19 was a “lightning flash illumination” of existing problems in the NHS, Johnson said, defending his controversial plan to raise National Insurance contributions to fund social care by adding: “Does anyone think funding the NHS should not be a priority?”
He continued that the government “stands by” those struggling to pay for social care, while saying that the Tories would not “siphon taxes” to fund care without reform of the existing system. The money will not be spent on “needless bureaucracy”, he pledged.
His comments on tax rises were met with “stony silence”, according to The Telegraph. But his statement immediately afterwards that “Margaret Thatcher would not ignore the meteorite that has crashed through our economy” was “met with nods of approval”, the paper added.
3. ‘Levelling up’
Johnson claimed that “in their souls” Labour does not like “levelling up”, adding that they would oversee a “levelling down” and the “decapitating of tall poppies and taxing the rich till the pips squeak”. In a segue, he added: “They like kids to run races where nobody actually wins. I don’t think that is good preparation for life, let alone the Olympic Games.”
The prime minister continued that inequalities within the UK exist within regions, adding: “What monkey glands are they applying in Ribble Valley, what royal jelly, are they eating that they live seven years longer than the people of Blackpool, only 33 miles away?”
“There is no reason why the inhabitants of one part of the country should be geographically fated to be poorer than others,” he added. “Levelling up works for the whole country – and is the right and responsible policy.”
In the only policy announcement in the speech, the PM also announced a “levelling-up premium” worth up to £3,000 to encourage science and maths teachers to head to different areas of the country.
The prime minister attempting to paint his landmark policy as an effort “take the pressure off parts of the South East while offering hope and opportunity to areas that have felt left behind”, said Sky News.
But writing in The Guardian yesterday, Labour Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham attacked Johnson for failing to “make ‘levelling up’ mean something”, a complaint unlikely to have been resolved by this speech.
4. Vaccine capitalism
Celebrating the government’s speedy vaccination campaign, Johnson said that “these vaccines have ensured that jabs, jabs, jabs become jobs, jobs, jobs”.
He added that the rollout “saved our open society and free market economy and it is our open society and free market economy that has produced the most effective vaccines”.
Discussing youth crime rates, the prime minister said that “it is all about opportunity”, continuing that “it is still a grim fact that some kids will grow up in neighbourhoods that are much safer than others”.
Drawing attention to Home Secretary Priti Patel’s speech to the conference yesterday, he attacked Labour for wanting to “decriminalise drugs”, a solution to rising crime that he suggested came “straight from the powder rooms of north London”.
Stating that he is a believer in the “broken window theory of crime”, he added: “If you can steal a dog or a cat there is frankly no limit to your depravity.”
6. Boris’s bluster
The speech was also full of the prime minister’s characteristic turns of phrase.
Walking out onto the stage he thanked “John Bon Govie”, a reference to Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Michael Gove, for showing it was safe to return to nightclubs. The comment came after the Daily Record published a video of the cabinet minister dancing in an Aberdeen nightclub a month ago.
He described Keir Starmer as looking like a “seriously rattled bus conductor”, adding that the Labour leader was like “the skipper of a cruise liner that’s been captured by Somali pirates, desperately trying to negotiate a change of course and then changing his mind”.
Attacking Starmer for his caution around easing lockdown restrictions, he deployed his “captain hindsight” jibe, continuing that had Columbus listened to Starmer, “he would have only discovered Tenerife”.
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