Boris Johnson. Picture by Tim Hammond / No 10 Downing Street.
Boris Johnson’s speech at the Conservative Party conference was typically freewheeling – there were plenty of puns, barely any policy announcements and references to “leftie Islington lawyers”, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher.
It followed a round of media interviews conducted in much the same spirit, answering questions that weren’t asked and ignoring some that were.
As well as doubling down on reasons for the HGV driver shortages, he discussed levelling up, office working and the criminal justice system.
Cries of “liar” follow most of Johnson’s comments, but have they been wholly justified?
Here’s a quick analysis of what he said… and what others said in response.
Johnson talked a lot about levelling up in his speech. In fact, the only policy to come out of it was aimed at levelling up – he announced a £3,000 premium to attract maths and science teachers to disadvantaged areas.
In an interview the previous day he had told LBC’s Nick Ferrari that levelling up was already happening through infrastructure – mentioning super-fast gigabit broadband coverage which is now at 65 per cent across the UK. He also highlighted wage increases, something challenged by Andrew Marr on Sunday but which Full Fact has since confirmed.
“And that is levelling up,” he said, though Ferrari hit back: “You’ve just taken universal credit away.”
Johnson acknowledged people felt “times were difficult”, blaming the pandemic, but said the government had a £500million fund set aside for those who find it “particularly tough” in the coming months. He also mentioned the increase in childcare provision, the warm homes discount and local housing allowance.
“But what we won’t do is take more money in tax to subsidise low pay through the welfare system,” he added.
The £500m Johnson referenced is the household support fund announced last week.
But the scheme cannot make up for the loss of £20 per week due to disappear from the budgets of those receiving universal credit, according to Dr Ben Baumberg Geiger of the University of Kent, who authored a report that found around half of people claiming the benefit faced food insecurity even after the government boosted payments by £80 per month.
“It’s a simple matter of maths,” he said.
Tory figures have also criticised the levelling up plans, with Margaret Thatcher’s deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine the latest.
The Tory peer slammed Michael Gove’s conference speech, saying: “It’s very easy to keep sloganising, but they’ve been doing that for nearly two years and they have wasted that period of their power with a large majority.
“No one listening to his speech who is interested in the subject of levelling up is any wiser than they were before the speech,” he told Sky News.
Northern Powerhouse Rail
Back in 2019 Johnson pledged to build a new rail line between Leeds and Manchester via Bradford and more than once in the past week he’s teased an announcement on the Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) project.
It comes amid speculation surrounding the future of the project, as well as the Birmingham to Leeds arm of the HS2 train line.
The Northern Powerhouse Partnership’s Henri Murison this week warned the PM levelling up would be “nothing more than a slogan” if he failed to deliver both.
So it was welcome news for the north when Johnson told Times Radio ahead of his speech: “You’re going to get quite a lot on Northern Powerhouse Rail”.
Unfortunately, anyone in the north who was watching was probably left wondering: “Is that it?” when his sole reference to Northern Powerhouse Rail was to say: “We will do Northern Powerhouse Rail”.
The prime minister made no mention of the supply crisis in his speech, but that may not be as surprising as it should be given he told Radio 4’s Today programme the previous day that there was no supply crisis.
He said the UK and global economy was simply seeing the “stresses and strains you’d expect from a giant waking up”.
Johnson added the fact only 127 foreign fuel tanker drivers had applied to come to the UK through an emergency scheme proved the Tories’ stance that the driver shortage is a global one and not UK specific. Labour shortages are a sign of “economic robustness”, he added, rather than economic failure.
It’s true the shortage is not restricted to the UK, with European countries also impacted by driver shortages due to a number of factors, not least poor working conditions.
The Road Haulage Association says of the 600,000 registered HGV licence holders half have left the industry, with up to 20,000 foreign drivers said to have returned home since Brexit.
But Edwin Atema, head of research at the Dutch FNV union, which represents lorry drivers in the Netherlands, told the Today programme last week that it wasn’t just poor working conditions causing the problems.
“The EU workers we speak to will not go to the UK for a short term visa to help UK out of the shit they created themselves,” he said.
Labour Party chair Anneliese Dodds also had strong words in response to Johnson’s comments this morning, saying the PM is “so out of touch he can’t see a crisis when it’s staring him in the face”.
Reacting to his “vacuous” speech, Dodds added: “The PM talked more about beavers than he did about action to tackle the multiple crises facing working people up and down the country.
“Far from getting a grip on the spiralling costs of energy, fuel and food, the Tories are actively making things worse – cutting incomes today for six million families by over £1,000 a year.
Lawyers reacted furiously to Johnson’s take on the low level of rape convictions.
The PM told Today “people are not being convicted of rape in a way that they should be” because “we’ve got these immense complications with evidence from mobile phones, and the defence is too often able to produce a spurious or otherwise reason why the defendant might have thought consent was given.”
Legal figures took to social media to reject his claims – pointing out that the huge backlog in the criminal justice system pre-dates Covid and was caused by government cuts.
In July, the crown court case backlog stood at a record 59,000, with trials now regularly taking place years after a charge.
In his speech, Johnson also talked up how the Tories were putting “more bobbies on the beat”, before claiming…
‘Labour wants to decriminalise drugs’
Johnson used his speech to attack Labour for wanting to “decriminalise drugs” and “let gangsters off with a caution”, which he suggested came “straight from the powder rooms of north London”.
He was likely referring to an interview in which Keir Starmer said Scotland’s decision to effectively decriminalise drug possession, even for class A substances, was “probably the right thing to do”.
Starmer had caused confusion with his comments last month because he also said he wasn’t in favour of scrapping drug laws completely.
‘There is a world of difference between a decision not to prosecute a particular case and ripping up the drug laws,’ he told ITV’s Representing Border.
Johnson also told LBC’s Nick Ferrari that he wanted to see everybody “get back to their desk”.
He added that for young people in particular, it was “essential”.
“If you are going to learn on the job, you can’t just do it on Zoom,” he said. “You have got to be able to come in, you have got to know what everyone else is talking about – otherwise you are going to be gossiped about and you are going to lose out.”
He also confirmed that not all of his staff were back in an office.
His comments come after the government launched a consultation over plans to allow employees to request flexible working arrangements from their first day in a job.
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