STEPHEN GLOVER: Can Boris Johnson actually deliver?
STEPHEN GLOVER: Was this the biggest comeback since Margaret Thatcher… and after that barnstorming speech, can Boris Johnson actually deliver?
Almost 40 years ago to the day, as a young journalist, I watched Margaret Thatcher make her famous ‘The lady’s not for turning’ speech at the Tory Party Conference in Brighton.
As she shot off the dais after the usual standing ovation, perspiring somewhat and in a state of high emotion, I was the first person she spotted. She looked into my eyes for signs of adulation, and for a horrified moment I thought she was going to kiss me. But she passed on.
People forget just how unpopular Thatcher then was, not just in the country but with many in her own party. She had triumphantly won an election 17 months earlier, but euphoria had sagged as unemployment soared. The so-called Tory wets were out to get her.
In the end, of course, she stuck to her guns and went on to win two more elections. She changed the face of Britain economically and socially to an extent that no one present in Brighton 40 years ago could have predicted.
Dare one draw parallels with Boris Johnson’s virtual party conference speech yesterday? It was a virtuoso performance that in many respects surpassed Thatcher’s.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivering his keynote speech to the virtual Conservative Party Conference in central London
Whereas she wrote little of her speech, the trademark vivid imagery and passionate eloquence of Boris’s suggest he wrote nearly all of his. Like Thatcher in 1980, he is being sniped at by some in his own party.
They said she wasn’t up to it, as they say Boris isn’t. She was supposedly the wrong woman for the job, and many fear he is the wrong man. She was sinking in the polls, and so is he. Yesterday the old campaigning Boris was on show — the man who stormed to an 80- seat majority last December, and drove out Jeremy Corbyn and his Marxists.
He laid out a glorious vision for the future which will have left only flinty hearts untouched. His sheer verve and energy scotched any theory that he is still suffering from ‘Long Covid’. He convincingly dismissed any suggestion that he had ‘lost his mojo’ as ‘drivel’.
This vigorous, once-againoptimistic Boris was on our side. He hated the pandemic as much as we do, but foresaw a day when we ‘will be back to normal’ and ‘hairdressers will no longer look as though they are handling radioactive isotopes’.
But he was looking beyond merely returning to normal. Just as the wartime government ‘had sketched out a vision of a post-war new Jerusalem’ at a time ‘when just about everything had gone wrong’, so he had set his sights on a fairer, more prosperous Britain.
Almost 40 years ago to the day Margaret Thatcher made her famous ‘The lady’s not for turning’ speech at the Tory Party Conference in Brighton
Covid would be a ‘catalyst for change’. It must be said that several aspects of this brave new world have previously been paraded before our eyes. The thousands of extra police and nurses, as well as dozens of spanking new hospitals, were recycled news. Sometimes, too, there was a vexing lack of detail.
He said, as he has before, that the ‘injustice’ of care home funding would be addressed, though didn’t supply any further detail. ‘One-to-one teaching’ was extolled without any consideration of cost, or explanation as to how many children might benefit.
That said, there were bold new measures. Some £160million will be spent to develop offshore wind turbines and ‘windmills that float on the sea’. Perhaps rather incredibly, these will produce ’15 times as much [wind energy] as the rest of the world put together’.
When the PM boasted that in ten years’ time ‘your kettle, your washing machine, your cooker, your heating, your plug-in electric vehicle’ will ‘get their juice cleanly and without guilt from the breezes that blow around these islands’, he brushed over our continuing dependence on nuclear power and gas.
Equally mind-boggling was his promise, intimated in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, that the Government will give young first-time buyers the chance to take out a long-term fixed-rate mortgage of up to 95 per cent of the value of a new home.
There was more than a whiff of Thatcherism about this exciting idea, as there was in his phrase about ‘the fundamental, life-affirming power of home ownership, the power to decide what colour to paint your own front door’.
For the first time in ages, Boris Johnson sounded like a proper Tory, not only in championing people’s right to own their own homes, but also in declaring ‘there comes a moment when state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it’.
Rousing stuff. But does he mean it? I think so, though one mustn’t forget that he was addressing the party faithful, even if they weren’t assembled in a hall. Their juices get going whenever there is mention of home ownership and the virtues of private enterprise.
The more intractable question is whether he can deliver even half his utopian dream. I began to have doubts when, having invited us to imagine arriving in this country in 2030, he spoke of ‘your zerocarbon jet made in the UK’. Is that really likely?
We don’t manufacture any large passenger aircraft as it is, and Rolls-Royce, one of the world’s largest makers of aero engines, is battling to survive because of the pandemic.
I’ll be astonished if anyone ever arrives in this country in a ‘zero-carbon jet made in the UK’. Words can be inspiring and affecting, and Boris Johnson uses them extremely well. He is, after all, a very fine newspaper columnist.
But the trouble with columnists (I speak with some insight) is that they don’t have to deliver what they promise. How good it was to see Boris back on form and free from the ill effects of Covid! It is wonderful to have a Tory prime minister with a grand vision. We haven’t had one since Margaret Thatcher.
But can Boris make these things happen? Or is it all talk? No one would pretend that he or the Government have had a distinguished pandemic. The PM was slow to grasp its seriousness, and has been too much in thrall to gloomster scientists.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has committed a roll call of errors. Yes, I know many other world leaders have struggled to cope with the disease. And it’s easy for those on the sidelines to carp.
Maybe, too, Boris has learnt from his mistakes — the most recent one of which is to strangle the struggling economy with numerous (and confusing) regulations.
The fact remains that to deliver half of what he stirringly presented to us will require resoluteness and mastery of detail and a fair bit of good fortune. I’m not sure Boris can count on all those.
And yet I think back to Margaret Thatcher 40 years ago. Many wrote her off. They were as certain that she wasn’t up to the job as people now are about Boris’s capabilities.
He could still surprise us. I’m not convinced he was fashioned by his maker to be Prime Minister.
But that is what he is. Yesterday he delivered a humdinger of a speech which no one else in British politics would have been capable of. Surely the country should give him a chance.
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