Boris Johnson has vowed to defeat Covid and build a better country over the next decade in his leader’s speech to the virtual Conservative conference.
Evoking the UK’s recovery from World War Two, he said he wanted to build a “new Jerusalem”, with opportunity for all, improved housing and healthcare.
He warned the UK could not return to normal after the pandemic, which would be a “catalyst” for major change.
And he rejected suggestions he had “lost his mojo” as “drivel”.
In his speech, delivered without the usual conference audience, he said he wanted to see the back of coronavirus and the “erosion of liberties” it had led to and to see the country flourishing again.
He said: “Even in the darkest moments we can see the bright future ahead. And we can see how to build it and we will build it together.”
The PM praised the UK’s fight against the virus, saying he had had “more than enough” of the disease – which he insisted would be overcome by “collective effort”.
He insisted the pandemic could not be allowed to “hold us back or slow us down” and the country that emerged from the crisis would be very different from the one that preceded it.
Insisting that “we will not content ourselves with a repair job” after the pandemic, he said the government would:
- Make the UK a “world leader” in green energy, announcing £160m of investment in ports and factories to increase electricity generation from offshore wind
- “Fix the injustice” of care home funding, adding the crisis had “shone a spotlight” on the plight of the sector
- Boost housebuilding through changes to England’s “sclerotic” planning system, and improving access to low-deposit mortgages for first-time buyers
- Explore greater provision of one-to-one teaching for pupils who had fallen behind during the pandemic, or those of “exceptional abilities”.
Mr Johnson said the pandemic had “forced” the government into massively expanding the role of the state, but warned against drawing the “wrong economic conclusion from this crisis”.
He said for Conservatives, the increased bail-outs and subsidies to prop up the economy “go against our instincts,” but there was “simply no reasonable alternative”.
“There are many who regard this state expansion as progress, who want to keep the state supporting furlough forever, keep people in suspended animation,” he said.
“We Conservatives believe that way lies disaster, and that we must build back better by becoming more competitive, both in tax and regulation.”
‘To do better’
Pledging to rebuild the dream of home ownership for the young, he vowed to help get more 20 to 30-year-olds on the housing ladder by offering fixed-rate mortgages available to those with just 5% deposits.
He added: “In the depths of the Second World War, in 1942 when just about everything had gone wrong, the government sketched out a vision of the post-war new Jerusalem that they wanted to build.
“And that is what we are doing now – in the teeth of this pandemic.
“We are resolving not to go back to 2019, but to do better: to reform our system of government; to renew our infrastructure; to spread opportunity more widely and fairly and to create the conditions for a dynamic recovery that is led not by the state but by free enterprise.”
Although the current situation is about as far from standard as anything in recent history, the PM’s conference speech was, well, rather standard.
It was a familiar Johnson cocktail: the kind of gags you might hear during an after-dinner speech, and the political message we have heard from him already on several big set-piece occasions.
Namely, that the government was fighting a war against this disease but it will be vanquished, and he will lead the country to a happier peace.
His speech was not short of ambition – including promises on everything from green jobs, to education, productivity, housing, even to planting trees.
It was though short on detail of how the country will make it to his “New Jerusalem”, and how his promises would actually be made to happen.
Does that matter?
While conference speeches are often a big shop window for leaders to talk to the country, it felt today that the prime minister didn’t really take that opportunity.
Instead, perhaps to try to calm activists’ nerves, he pointed out that he was uncomfortable with the expansion of the state to deal with Covid-19, still a believer in traditional Tory values, and even claimed it was “seditious” to suggest that he had lost some of his normal mojo.
Mr Johnson also addressed those who have criticised his leadership during the pandemic, saying it was wrong to suggest he has not fully recovered from his battle with the disease, which saw him hospitalised for a week.
“I have read a lot of nonsense recently, about how my own bout of Covid has somehow robbed me of my mojo.
“And of course this is self-evident drivel, the kind of seditious propaganda that you would expect from people who don’t want this government to succeed, who wanted to stop us delivering Brexit and all our other manifesto pledges.”
He attacked Labour’s response during the crisis, labelling its leader Sir Keir Starmer as “Captain Hindsight”, and suggesting the opposition saw the crisis as an opportunity to make the huge extension of the reach of the state a permanent feature of British life.
Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour Party, said the prime minister had not set out a plan for the months ahead.
She said: “We end this Conservative conference as we started it: with a shambolic testing system, millions of jobs at risk and an incompetent government that has lost control of this virus and is holding Britain back.”