Boris Johnson is a Marmite politician, so it is no surprise that his Conservative conference speech has provoked radically different responses. Those on the right who can only ever see Johnson’s strengths – as vote winner, optimist or charismatic leader – heard only the speech’s virtues and ignored its many weaknesses. Those on the left who see only Johnson’s vices heard the exact opposite – the speech’s narcissism, vagueness and at times nastiness – not its larger potential significance.
There was more to Johnson’s speech than this. Perhaps that is because, in a Covid-dominated virtual conference season, the text of a leader’s speech looms larger than the theatrical performance. That has rarely been the case with Johnson, where the performance is normally all. This time, however, his speech contained a lot of clues about his government’s intended direction – while highlighting the problems it will encounter in trying to stick to it.
The Tory conference came at an exceptionally difficult time for the prime minister. Covid has often found Johnson wanting. That is certainly the case right now. The mood towards him in his party is much less indulgent than it was a year, or even six months, ago. Remarkably, his ratings among previously enthusiastic Tory activists are now in the relegation zone, just above education secretary Gavin Williamson but trailing far behind chancellor Rishi Sunak and plenty of other ministers.
Johnson therefore had to address his many critics this week. But the way in which he did so was worth noting. It was more defiant than apologetic. It was also distinctively Johnsonian, with all the mix of qualities this implies. That’s because, though admittedly this is not a high bar, when compared with most Tory leaders’ conference speeches of the past 40 years, it was more egalitarian.
It is true that Johnson shamelessly used Tuesday’s speech to conjure up a distant, politically sun-kissed future rather than to talk about the stormy present realities of a rapidly deteriorating autumn Covid crisis. The virus will of course define the Johnson premiership, whether he likes it or not. But let’s be honest. This kind of speech is what most political leaders with their backs against the wall would have given in these circumstances.
In any case, vision is hardly unimportant in politics. And there were fairly clear long-term ambitions in what Johnson said on big subjects such as living standards, the environment and care homes that deserve recognition. Take, for example, the striking commitments to lifting real incomes (ask yourself when a Tory leader last said that), to creating a nation of wind-power homes by 2030, and the hint that social care – reportedly absorbing a lot of Johnson’s time in No 10 at the moment – will be rebuilt on the basis of a form of national insurance as set out in the 2011 Dilnot report.
If nothing else, these all provide ammunition for Labour to put in its back pocket. It isn’t hard to imagine Keir Starmer rerunning these clips at the next election to remind voters about Johnson’s airy promises if they are not fulfilled. But the commitments also suggest that the Johnson government could possess rather more understanding of the social, economic and regional changes of the early 21st century than is sometimes supposed, and that its direction of travel contains progressive aspects that should not be underestimated.
The real test here for the Tories, in other words, may be less about the vision than the detail. All governments tend to overpromise and underdeliver. But if we allow that the Johnson government is pretty ambitious and even, in some senses, has a progressive agenda, many crucial questions still remain. These include whether the plans are ambitious enough or overambitious, how they are to be financed and, in particular, whether they are sufficiently worked out at the local and micro levels for people on the ground to notice the difference and reward the Tories with their support.
Thus far, there have been few answers. That’s partly excusable, perhaps, when you are trying to manage a pandemic. But slogans are only ever the first step. “Levelling up”, for example, is a powerful phrase. But it has been promiscuously taken up by ministers to apply to everything from regional growth to net zero-carbon emissions, HS2 and educational opportunity. Levelling up is already in danger of becoming an empty label.
Significantly, this concern is being voiced by some of Johnson’s most hard-headed supporters. The new Tory MPs who captured Labour seats in 2019 are already a significant lobby, not afraid to use their muscle. But the 40-strong backbench levelling up taskforce launched in September speaks for many safer Tory seats too. One of these, the Harborough MP Neil O’Brien, produced a powerful study last month showing that pay in the new Tory seats is on average 5% lower than in Labour seats. O’Brien’s report, Measuring Up for Levelling Up, puts the spotlight firmly on the need to prioritise locally focused action on earnings and employment, not the grands projets often favoured by Johnson.
When your slogan is “Levelling up” or “Build back better”, you need both focus and metrics of the kind O’Brien advocates, preferably accurate ones. You must have ways of judging whether what you build back is in fact better – and is seen to be – and not just the same or worse. You must be clear – and so must the voters – about what yardsticks you are using to show that your actions are levelling up, not down or even creating worse forms of inequality and deprivation than before.
The government has too done little of this detailed work yet. Perhaps that is understandable in a pandemic. But the charge against Johnson’s domestic agenda is not that it is a sham, although it may prove to be. It is that there is simply not enough attention to choosing the right priorities and local delivery mechanisms to make a reality of it.
• Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist