Boris Johnson speech analysis: Light on policy but revealing of the extent of his ambitions

Boris Johnson delivered a grandstanding speech aimed at Red Wall voters and true-blue Tories alike - but where were the policies, asks Ethan Shone

In his keynote speech to the Conservative party conference today, Boris Johnson revealed the intellectual ballast for his levelling up ideology to be the work of 19th century Italian economist Wilfredo Pareto.

Johnson explained how Pareto argued that there are many ways you can improve the lives of some people without diminishing the lives of others. This principle is what informs the levelling up agenda, he claimed.

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But the speech, and the emerging political strategy which it sought to flesh out, could be said to owe as much to the central idea of another Italian thinker from around the same period, Antonio Gramsci.

Gramsci wrote at length about hegemony, or dominance, and that is clearly what Johnson is aiming for with an offer that seems to stretch across a wider expanse of the political spectrum than any recent leader.

Taking up the baton from a line in his chancellor’s speech on Monday, that the Conservative party is ‘for business and the worker’, the PM attempted to cast the Tories as representing “the nurses and the entrepreneurs”.

Some detail on ‘levelling up’

He sought to fill in the gaps on levelling up, explaining that it would benefit the “overheating” South East as well as areas in the rest of the country that “feel they have been left behind”, by relieving pressure on infrastructure.

In perhaps the most effective passage of the speech he spoke of the inequalities within regions of the UK, as well as between them, in health, education and more, which mean that life expectancy is seven years less in Blackpool than Ribble Valley, and “half of York’s population boast a degree and only a quarter of Doncaster’s”.

Johnson made good noises about inequality - describing the UK as having an “unbalanced society and lopsided economy” - and talked up the benefits of rewilding, defended the role of higher education, expressed his support for LGBT rights and called for higher wages for low-paid workers.

But this all came in a speech during which he also welcomed draconian measures to clamp down on protest, doubled down on harmful and incorrect rhetoric around asylum seekers and attacked what he called the “know nothing cancel culture” which leads some to criticise historical figures like Winston Churchill.

There was plenty there which was designed to appeal to both non-traditional Conservative voters and true-blues alike outside the hall, but Johnson also used the speech to both cement and demonstrate his hegemony over the party itself.

He criticised his Conservative predecessors, albeit implicitly, for their failure to tackle long-term structural issues within society, but also criticised Labour’s record on the economy, casting them as being in favour of “levelling down”.

In doing so, he gave nods to the different wings of the Tory party which between them believe that Johnson’s government is spending too much and not spending enough, and raising taxes too quickly and not quickly enough.

And, in a bid to soothe those traditionalist small-state Tories who have been made uneasy with all Johnson’s talk of government intervention, the PM claimed that Margaret Thatcher herself would back his plans.

A dominant Tory leader

Though both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss have been spoken of this week as potential successors to the prime minister, it is worth noting that there has been no speculation whatsoever that either could become his challenger.

Throughout the speech cameras flicked from the prime minister to his senior colleagues, each one clearly doing their very best to smile or nod or frown at the appropriate moments.

Not one of them betrayed even a hint that they might be harbouring desires for his job.

But Johnson displayed his dominance most acutely with a joke aimed squarely at his new housing secretary, who he dubbed ‘Jon Bon Govey’ in reference to a viral video of him dancing in an Edinburgh nightclub.

Gove, who not so long ago scuppered Johnson’s leadership ambitions in the wake of the Brexit vote with a knife-in-the-back, could do nothing but laugh as his face turned bright, burning red.

The warning to any would-be future plotters was clear; don’t mess with Boris Johnson, because he’ll have the last laugh.