MANCHESTER, England — Boris Johnson promised to “unleash” the British spirit with a “reforming, can-do government” in a bombastic Conservative Party conference speech which tilted toward the next election.
The U.K. prime minister vowed a “change of direction” for the U.K. — despite the Conservatives having been in power for 11 years — which he argued would be achieved by controlling immigration and boosting opportunity in deprived parts of the U.K.
Almost devoid of policy detail but hugely popular with the party faithful, the speech showed Johnson in a triumphant mood, even as the country grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic and post-Brexit supply chain problems that he insists are transitory.
Johnson took aim at “the same broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills, low productivity,” which he said had been “enabled and assisted by uncontrolled immigration.”
Returning to his flagship domestic “leveling up” agenda, Johnson bemoaned the fact that “talent, genius, flair, imagination, enthusiasm” are evenly distributed throughout the country while “opportunity is not.”
The sole policy announcement of his speech fitted with that theme, with the prime minister pledging a £3,000 funding premium to send the country’s best maths and science teachers to parts of the country where they are most needed.
The speech had the feel of a campaign rally, delivered to a packed hall of activists holding placards while Johnson deployed his traditional flights of rhetoric and elaborate put-downs.
He referred to former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn as a “corduroy Communist cosmonaut,” while new Labour boss Keir Starmer was dismissed as a “rattled bus conductor.”
And he gave a full-throated defense of the AUKUS security pact Britain recently struck with the U.S. and Australia, describing it an example of “something daring and brilliant that would simply not have happened if we’d remained in the EU.”
“AUKUS is simply a recognition of the reality that the world is tilting on its axis, and trade and relations in the Indo-Pacific region are becoming more vital than ever before,” he added.
Johnson also nodded to the forthcoming COP26 summit in Glasgow, which he said would “test the resolve of the world” — as he warned “government can’t do it alone and taxpayers can’t do it alone.”
The prime minister was bullish about his own planned, manifesto-breaking tax hike aimed at shoring up funding for health and social care. It’s an unpopular decision with many Tories, but Johnson argued Conservative hero Margaret Thatcher would have made the same move. And he asked: “Does anyone seriously imagine that we should not now be raising the funding to sort it [the NHS] out?”
Johnson covered a vast amount of ground, raising cheers for Margaret Thatcher, bankers and the NHS — and highlighting the difficult task Labour seeks in trying to rebuild from its 2019 election drubbing.