Boris Johnson: Six key takeaways from his keynote conference speech

6 October 2021, 17:58 | Updated: 9 October 2021, 12:35

By Patrick Grafton-Green

Boris Johnson has closed the Conservative Party conference with a speech largely devoid of major policy announcements.

Instead, the Prime Minister used his 44-minute address - full of typical bombast and peppered with jokes - to spell out what his "levelling-up" agenda means.

Here’s what we learned:

'Difficult' times ahead amid promised shift to higher wages

With shortages of lorry drivers and other workers hitting supply chains, leading to empty shelves and queues at petrol stations, Mr Johnson defended his strategy of restricting the supply of cheap foreign labour after Brexit.

The PM told activists in Manchester his new approach would ultimately create a "low-tax economy".

He said: "That's the direction in which the country is going now - towards a high-wage, high-skilled, high-productivity and, yes, thereby a low-tax economy. That is what the people of this country need and deserve.

"Yes, it will take time, and sometimes it will be difficult, but that is the change that people voted for in 2016."

ANALYSIS: Boris Johnson's keynote speech was light on policy and full of bombast

Margaret Thatcher would approve of tax rises

His claims about a low-tax economy came despite a looming National Insurance rise for millions of workers in April to fund a £12 billion annual investment in health and social care.

Setting out the need for the hike, Mr Johnson said: "We have a huge hole in the public finances, we spent £407 billion on Covid support and our debt now stands at over £2 trillion, and waiting lists will almost certainly go up before they come down.

"Covid pushed out the great bow wave of cases and people did not or could not seek help, and that wave is now coming back - a tide of anxiety washing into every A&E and every GP.

"Your hip replacement, your mother's surgery... and this is the priority of the British people."

The Prime Minister insisted even Margaret Thatcher "would not have ignored the meteorite that has just crashed through the public finances".

He added: "She would have wagged her finger and said: 'More borrowing now is just higher interest rates, and even higher taxes later.'"

READ MORE: Boris Johnson: I will tackle 'underlying problems' when no other Govt had the 'guts' to

'Levelling up' agenda 

"The idea in a nutshell is you will find talent, genius, care, imagination and enthusiasm everywhere in this country, all of them evenly distributed - but opportunity is not," Mr Johnson said.

"Our mission as Conservatives is to promote opportunity with every tool we have."

In a rare mention of policy, he promised a "levelling-up premium" of up to £3,000 to get "the best maths and science teachers to the places that need them most" to boost the life chances of children from poorer areas.

He also referenced housing market reform, improved broadband, cracking down on crime and better transport links to help his "levelling up" agenda.

READ MORE: 'They belong in jail': Boris Johnson backs targeting eco-protesters

War on woke

Mr Johnson insisted Conservative activists must "defend" the UK's history or risk the country having a "know-nothing cancel culture".

The PM claimed attempts to reassess the country's past is akin to a celebrity seeking to edit their Wikipedia page, adding it is also a "betrayal" of children's education.

He said: "We Conservatives will defend our history and cultural inheritance, not because we are proud of everything, but because trying to edit it now is... dishonest."

Back to the office

Mr Johnson issued a fresh call for workers to return to "buzzing" town centres following the Covid-19 pandemic.

He said "we will and must see people back in the office" as he continued his drive to end working from home.

He told the conference: "We know that a productive workforce needs the spur that only comes with face-to-face meetings and water cooler gossip.

"If young people are to learn on the job in the way they always have and must, we will and must see people back in the office."

READ MORE: PM criticises 'lying, cowardly' men as he addresses violence against women

Criticism of Labour... and previous Tory governments

The Prime Minister criticised Labour's performance during the pandemic, accusing the party of "flapping".

He said: "Did you see them last week, did you watch them last week in Brighton? Hopelessly divided, I thought they looked.

"Their leader (Sir Keir Starmer) looked like a seriously rattled bus conductor, pushed this way and that by a Corbynista mob, sellotaped-spectacled soggy lot.

"Remember Labour's performance during the pandemic? Flapping with the conviction of a damp tea towel."

The PM also took past Conservative governments to task, hitting out at "decades of drift and dither" and a lack of "guts" for major change with regards to social care.

He said: "This reforming government, this can-do government, this government that got Brexit done, that is getting the Covid vaccine rollout done, is going to get social care done and we're going to get the biggest underlying issues of our economy and society - the problems that no government has had the guts to tackle."