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Boris Johnson’s challenge today was not whether he could give a rousing speech to the party faithful, it was whether he can translate his trademark boosterism into something tangible.
Take levelling up. A fear has been allowed to fester that the true meaning of the term is to hold on to Red Wall seats in the North of England by raiding London and the southeast. Yet levelling up need not be a geographical concept. There is real poverty in parts of the capital, as well as two-car, semi-detached owning professionals in the North.
What will level down the entire country is widespread supply chain issues. When challenged on this, the Prime Minister said it was “not the job of government to come in and fix every problem”.
No one is expecting the Prime Minister to solve “every” problem. But many of these problems can be solved by the Government getting a grip not just on the impact of Brexit but other factors — such as taxing the self-employed and contractors.
Then there is the general rise in the cost of living. Petrol, gas, the universal credit cut and a national insurance rise to come. Johnson’s gamble is that the present pain will be transitory, if anything a necessary step on the path to higher wages.
Yet the truth is, there is only one sure path to higher wages. It is not simply cutting off EU immigration, but the hard graft of higher productivity. But there are fears the Prime Minister’s aversion to freedom of movement is leading him to ignore sensible suggestions, such as that of Lord Wolfson in this paper, for a demand-led immigration system.
This exposes a bigger shift. The Conservatives end their conference seen as anti-business. Ministers seem to have forgotten that it is business, not government, which funds our public services.
Instead, the private sector is blamed for many of the problems we face. It has become the Government’s new magic money tree. Companies are being told to somehow raise wages without passing the cost on to their customers.
So the ultimate question for the Johnson political project, and the future prosperity of the UK, is how far can optimism take you in the face of economic reality. For better or worse, we may be about to find out.