Can the wizard of Boz keep the show on the road?

It was a classic Johnsonian moment. Amid a forest of exhibition stands in the Conservative Party conference hall, the Prime Minister mounted a bicycle and started pedalling.

He had dropped by to promote his target of making the UK “net zero” in carbon emissions by 2050, press pack in tow, but had spotted the chance for some mischief. As he sped away across the Tory Blue carpet, photographers scrambled to take their shots in time, hollering at him to come back. Delegates chuckled and reached for their iPhones or did double-takes. Downing Street aides, nerves evident behind smiles, tried to keep across the commotion.

As for the man at the centre, one camera captured some telling audio. Navigating the crowds as the laughter rang out, he was heard muttering to himself: “Where are we going?” The scene somehow captured the mood of this year’s party gathering in Manchester, four days of handshakes and speeches – both the triumph and the uncertainty.

More than two years into office and despite the tremors of Covid and fuel crises, the Prime Minister still has the Tory faithful smiling and clapping along at the show. His leadership is unchallenged. His party sits pretty in the polls. The meaning of Toryism is being refashioned in Johnson’s own image and Britain’s political centre ground redefined.

But look closer and a creeping sense of unease can be found in the party, from the Cabinet down, about the months ahead and the durability of the Johnson magic. How long before the Government gets the blame for shortages and the cost of living crunch? Will the reach for the Red Wall seats leave the South disillusioned? And how, exactly, do traditional Tory values fit with this new “radical and optimistic Conservatism”?

Johnson will keep pedalling and keep them smiling, but perhaps storm clouds are gathering. Weathering what is coming to reach the desired destination is easier said than done.

When the Prime Minister arrived at the Edwardian red brick Midland Hotel in the pouring rain of Saturday night he had reason to be content about his political standing. Autumn had brought with it the kind of overlapping real world problems that in normal times would lead to a nose dive in support for the governing party.

A full-blown petrol crisis was playing out across the country, with scores of forecourts closed, queues snaking into the distance and anecdotal reports of fights breaking out. The problem was one of delivery, not supply – the lack of HGV drivers to pick up fuel and fill the pumps – but the result was the same: millions of people struggling to fill up their cars.

Energy bills had also just shot up, an increase of £139 in the price cap announced the day before Johnson reached Manchester, a product of a global gas shortage. 

That all coincided with the Treasury calling time on the furlough scheme, a VAT holiday for hospitality and a £20 Universal Credit uplift benefiting six million people – a further squeeze.

Yet even a brief scan of the opinion polls as Tory members gathered showed no evidence that the public mood was shifting away from the Conservatives.

“He is one of those rare politicians like Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan,” enthused one Cabinet minister over drinks. “He has that special quality.”

Similar sentiments were voiced by more front-benchers in Manchester – that, for reasons they might not fully understand, the Prime Minister really does have a connection with voters that other politicians do not.

Best in show: Boris’s greatest conference hits

It is not just Tories who accept the point. Multiple shadow Cabinet ministers had admitted the same when Labour gathered for its conference in Brighton the week before. Sir Keir Starmer, they said privately, may have detoxified the party but lacked the pizzazz and “optimism” of the Prime Minister. One even said they would bet their house on a Tory victory at the next election – a remarkable admission.

The comfort the Tory leadership felt in its political position was clear in the approach to this week. It was a “putting meat on the bones” conference, one senior Tory said. No change of direction or major reboot was needed, it was felt by Downing Street. The messaging was right, they just needed to remind voters they were still on track – hence the “getting on with the job” conference slogan, which signalled past promises would be delivered with the pandemic eased. Hence, too, the lack of big policy announcements.

There was, however, one critical change in messaging rolled out at the gathering. It was deliberate and it was opportunistic. The Prime Minister had started writing his conference speech in mid-September when flying to America for a diplomatic blitz that included the United Nations and the White House. He has joked privately that he wrote 6,000 words on the flight, most of it “unusable”. But he had been pondering a challenge that looked set to intensify in the coming months.

Brexit and Covid had exacerbated labour shortages in certain sectors, causing supply chain issues – the lack of HGV drivers being one prominent example, the lack of butchers another. Signs of shortages on the supermarket shelves made headlines in September and there were fears – not knocked back publicly by the Cabinet – of problems stretching to Christmas.

To navigate the terrain, the Prime Minister latched onto another quirk of the Covid economy – soaring wages, which jumped eight per cent as lockdown eased – to tilt the narrative his way. On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, he unveiled the positioning, championing a “high wages, high skills” economy and refusing to pull “the big lever marked uncontrolled immigration”. 

The PM discussing wages on The Andrew Marr Show

Credit: Reuters

Reshuffling his hand, the Prime Minister had somehow flipped a political headache – petrol queues due to the lack of lorry drivers – into a potential strength: standing up for British workers. He doubled down throughout the week, arguing that the onus was on businesses to improve wages and conditions to attract British workers to sign up for the jobs. He argued it was the lorry driving industry and not the State that had so let down HGV drivers that they had to “urinate in bushes” due to a lack of decent truck stops.

The politics worked on two fronts. First, it was drawing a new dividing line with Labour on immigration after Starmer suggested he would approve 100,000 new visas for foreign lorry drivers to solve the shortage. The move was taken with both eyes firmly on the Red Wall seats of traditional Labour support in the north of England which Johnson flipped in the 2019 election. Many of those constituencies had backed Brexit, which ended free movement of labour from Europe.

But it also allowed the Prime Minister to own the surge in wages as a form of Brexit dividend – proof that people were getting paid more now they had “taken back control” of immigration, as he had argued when leading the Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum.

The new framing may have been stumbled upon, but that did not alone make it any less potent. Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation drive – a key part of her legacy of rolling back the reach of the State – is remembered by some as being triggered by the need to raise cash fast for the Treasury.

In public, Johnson’s Cabinet was supportive, hammering home the same “high wages, high skills” message despite blowback from business bosses who felt they were being blamed unfairly for shortages. But in private, there is nervousness in some quarters. Much of it revolves around the I-word: inflation. Lost in the nuance of the Prime Minister’s public arguments – but not by some of his colleagues – is that while wages are rising, so too are prices. Both reflect an economy coming out of Covid-induced lockdown, with people spending money they had been saving when stuck at home.

But if price rises outstrip wage growth, as some economists predict is about to happen, the win Johnson is declaring could disintegrate upon inspection. One Cabinet minister, unprompted, this week named inflation as their biggest current concern. “We don’t want to go back to the 1970s,” they said.

Others warned that unless productivity rises with wages then inflation could run away from the Government and become a major economic and political headache next year. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has pointed to analysis by multiple central banks, suggesting the price surge is a temporary side-effect of lockdowns ending worldwide. But he is nervous about Britain’s ballooning borrowing.

Sunak warned back in his March Budget that just a one per cent increase in inflation and interest rates would cost the UK Government £25 billion in borrowing costs. Since then, the possibility of that becoming reality has increased. It is one reason why the Treasury will be cautious about announcing a major increase in the minimum wage – a point of speculation throughout the Tory conference – at the Budget on October 27.

A rise of some form is almost certain, given chancellors always tend to approve the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission, which submits its proposals later this month. The £8.72 national living wage could rise to above £9.42 from next April. But adopting the £15 minimum wage level called for by Labour’s Left wing and resisted by Sir Keir is not being considered by Number 11, which appears more trepidatious about fuelling inflation than the occupant of Number 10.

That such an idea was even considered a possibility in the bubble is a reminder of how far Johnson has refashioned the Tory Party in his bid to minimise political space for Starmer, now well into his second year as Labour leader. But here, again, there is deep nervousness from the Tory top rank, in particular around one issue that was the elephant in the room throughout the conference: tax rises.

Boris Johnson chats with Home Secretary Priti Patel while they wait for Chancellor Rishi Sunak to deliver his keynote speech to the Conservative Party conference

Credit: PA

The nuts and bolts of the Tory discomfort are by now familiar. The Prime Minister broke a manifesto pledge last month by raising National Insurance by 1.25p to pay for higher NHS spending and social care reforms. The move pushed the tax burden to its highest point since the post-Second World War years. It followed increases in corporation tax and the freezing of income tax thresholds in the spring and triggered hand-wringing and soul-searching among the Tory grassroots.

The same, it emerged during the conference, is true around the Cabinet table. When any Cabinet minister was asked in private this week whether they wanted the tax burden – defined as total taxes and contributions as a proportion of GDP – to fall before the next election, they nodded approval.

“Oh God, yes,” said one. “Ideally,” said two others. “We believe in trusting people with their money, not the State,” said a fourth. A fifth revealed their deep “discomfort” at the tax hikes and suggested they would leave the Cabinet after delivering their policy priorities – an eye-catching if, for now, unprovable claim.

The message from the centre is one of comfort: don’t worry, it will all be fine. Tory rebels are told tax cuts will come before the next election, expected in May 2024, but details are not forthcoming about when or how.

Concern about the political impact of raising taxes is not confined to the Cabinet table. Senior Tories looking ahead to the next election assess that by reaching for the centre ground, Johnson has left political space to his right. Between 15 and 20 seats in traditional Tory strongholds in the rural South, dubbed the Blue Wall, have been flagged by Tory high command as constituencies at risk of being lost when the next vote takes place. They include seats around Cambridge and Oxford as well as Esher and Walton, the constituency of Dominic Raab, the Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary. The party nervousness explains why planning reforms have been scaled back.

For now there is no rabble-rouser on the Right who has the cut-through to mount a challenge from that wing. Nigel Farage is in political retirement and looks set to stay there, while others trying to repeat his model have fallen short. Nor are the Liberal Democrats, now unashamedly targeting the Blue Wall and mobilising on the ground, riding high enough in the polls to suggest a major comeback after their shock victory in Tory-held Chesham and Amersham at a by-election in June. But the vulnerability is there and Conservative Campaign Headquarters knows it.

Come 11.30am on Wednesday when Johnson strode onto the stage to the whoops and applause of the party masses, he could look back on a smooth four days. There had been no unexpected controversy, no political rival overshadowing from the fringes – a role he had played with relish during David Cameron and Theresa May’s premierships.

Cabinet ministers had given their speeches in a smaller than usual auditorium. For the Prime Minister – the only person to use the bigger venue – they sat in a line, positions pre-decided by the party command, and grinned. The 45-minute address had all the colour and comedy that are hallmarks of a Johnson conference speech. Sir Keir was a “rattled bus conductor”, nightclubbing Michael Gove was “Jon Bon Govi”. The Build Back Better slogan became Build Back Burger (celebrating America dropping its UK beef import ban) or Build Ban Beaver (a nod to rewilding).

Talking later, a Downing Street source said the Prime Minister had been practising the speech in his hotel room in the evenings but – quelle surprise – no jokes had been left on the cutting room floor.

But just as he had done as a columnist, Johnson’s humour is often used to cloak hard political points – in this case, pushing ahead with his bold reworking of the Tory Party brand. He was steadfast against mass immigration, zealous on culture wars, fulsome in praise for the NHS and condemnatory for eco-protesters.

There was a defence of free market forces – “it was capitalism that ensured that we had a [Covid] vaccine in less than a year” – but also criticism for employers failing to pay top dollar.

At times Prime Minister can ride two horses at once, at points framing himself as the heir to Blair and at others as the keeper of the Maggie flame. Both got a showing on Wednesday. He irks at comparisons with Donald Trump, often for good reason. But there is at least one similarity – both men challenged orthodoxies in their political parties and remoulded them in their own image, redefining the political landscape as a result.

The Prime Minister left Manchester all powerful in party politics, the cheers ringing in his ears but knowing a fraught road lies ahead. He will keep pedalling, with the wind at his back – for now at least.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *