Boris Johnson has branded levelling up “the greatest project that any government can embark on” in his closing speech at the Conservative Party’s annual conference.
In his keynote address marking the end of the four-day event, the prime minister pledged that his top team will “get on with our job of uniting and levelling up across the UK” as the country recovers from the coronavirus pandemic.
The PM said the UK has one of the most “imbalanced societies and lop-sided economies” when compared to other richer countries and said the Conservative Party’s mission “is to promote opportunity with every tool we have”.
The PM added some more detail to his “levelling up” ambition
Speaking in a secret hall which holds 1,400 people, more than double the capacity of the main conference hall used by ministers throughout the past few days, the prime minister added: “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.”
Invoking the spirit of former Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the PM promised to address a “long-term structural weakness” in the British economy.
Accusing the Labour Party of liking “levelling down” and “decapitating the tall poppies and taxing the rich till the pips squeak”, the PM said levelling up will take the pressure off parts of the South East while offering hope and opportunity to areas that have felt left behind.
Mr Johnson also announced a “levelling-up premium” worth up to £3,000 to encourage science and maths teachers to head to different areas of the country.
The new premium for teachers will cost £60 million over three years and come from new funding, a No 10 spokesperson said.
He promised not to rest when it comes to women’s safety
Addressing the issue of violence against women and girls, Mr Johnson criticised “lying, bullying, cowardly” men for “using the law’s delay” to get away with their acts.
“On behalf of the entire government, I tell you this: we will not rest until we’ve increased the successful prosecutions for rape – because too many lying, bullying, cowardly men are using the law’s delay to get away with violence against women, and we cannot and will not stand for it,” the PM said.
The PM admitted post-Brexit difficulty
Acknowledging changes to the economy after Brexit will at times be “difficult”, the PM told the conference audience that controlled immigration and investment will reshape the nation.
“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,” Mr Johnson said.
“Yes, it will take time, and sometimes it will be difficult, but that is the change that people voted for in 2016.”
Health care, the NHS and ‘getting social care done’
Receiving a standing ovation as he entered the stage, the PM began his speech by paying tribute to the “untiring, unbeatable, unbelievable NHS” for the coronavirus vaccine rollout.
Standing at a lectern emblazoned with his party’s slogan Build Back Better, the PM pledged that the Conservatives will be the party “to rise to the challenge” of reducing the backlog in the health care system that the pandemic has caused.
Pledging to “get social care done”, the PM told the conference crowd: “We are dealing with the biggest underlying issues of our economy and society, the problems that no government has had the guts to tackle before.”
Climate and people-trafficking
Mr Johnson also backed Home Secretary Priti Patel’s targeting of environmental protesters in Insulate Britain.
“You know those people gluing themselves to roads – I don’t call them legitimate protesters like some Labour councillors – I say they are a confounded nuisance who are blocking ambulances, stopping people going about their daily lives,” he said.
“I’m glad Priti is taking new powers to insulate them snuggly in prison where they belong.”
The PM also pledged to fight people-trafficking gangs at “home and abroad” and to “rewild” parts of the country.
Getting people back to work – and Michael Gove’s dance moves
The address also contained a push to get workers back in the office.
Making a joke near the beginning of his 46-page speech, the PM referenced Michael Gove’s dancing in an Aberdeen nightclub, suggesting the cabinet minister was demonstrating how dancing is again safe after the lifting of coronavirus restrictions.
“Let’s hear it for Jon Bon Govi,” he told the conference hall.
Concluding his speech after around 45 minutes, the PM left the conference hall hand in hand with his wife Carrie Johnson as audience members waved placards which read ‘Build Back Better’ and ‘Getting the Job Done’.
Analysis, Jon Craig, chief political correspondent
Boris Johnson concluded with a volley of praise for the British spirit, praising UK sportsmen and women – footballers, Emma Raducanu and Olympians and Paralympians – and said it was a spirit the Conservatives were going to unleash.
This speech was a “build back better” gag-fest, coupled with a powerful attack on Labour. It was relatively policy-light and in many ways was more like an election rally than a conference speech.
Gags included “build back beaver” on conservation and “build back burger” about beef exports. He’s probably the only UK politician that could get away with such corny lines.
Surprisingly, at the end, he didn’t hang around to milk the applause. And the speech was only 45 minutes, half the length of Sir Keir Starmer’s last week, partly because his delivery was at times machine-fire rapid.
We know simple slogans work. Nobody can be under any doubt about his strategy now. And after this week, we have a much better idea of what “build back better means”.
How did the PM’s speech go down outside of the conference hall?
In a pretty scathing response to the prime minister’s address, the free market think tank Adam Smith Institute (ASI) described Mr Johnson’s “rhetoric” as “bombastic but vacuous and economically illiterate”.
The ASI’s head of research Matthew Lesh added: “This was an agenda for levelling down to a centrally-planned, high-tax, low-productivity economy.”
The CBI added that the PM set out “a compelling vision for our economy” but “only stated his ambition on wages”.
Tony Danker, CBI director-general, added: “This needs to be backed up by action on skills, on investment and on productivity.”