At the end of this conference, I’m left scratching my head and wondering just who it was for. With cabinet ministers’ speeches repeating bland generalities to an empty crowd, and a parliamentary party spread so thinly among the billions of fringes, it was hard to escape that this was the victory rally that prime minister Johnson felt he deserved and didn’t get in 2019. Talk was all about the special, secret stage from which the world king would dispense rabbits, such as a bigger minimum wage, or transport goodies for the north. But when the work was done (by other people, naturally) and the stage was built, Johnson’s rabbits remained curiously absent in a speech that meandered vaguely from facetiousness to flippancy.
The exhibition hall was empty, but the fringes were full: there were too many with experts but without the corresponding parliamentarians. Parliamentarians were relatively tight-lipped. They will talk, if not about petrol and universal credit, about the skills gap and terrible infrastructure but whereby they used to blame Labour for these things, anything pre-Johnson is now fair game (as is, as ever, the European Union). And Dowden, Bradley and Berry fire the base up by trying to synthetically stoke the culture wars. But I got the sense that while there were plenty of delegates who were up for that kind of thing, most were looking for answers. Everything hinges on whether levelling up has anything behind it, and everyone wanted to know. For example, on Sunday at 3.30pm there were three fringes at the same time: Levelling Up Britain’s Left Behind Communities, How can we level up and What Does Levelling Up Mean. Welcome to the least exploitative Russ Meyer trilogy imaginable. On Monday, West Midlands metro mayor Andy Street had a go at answering the question, assembling experts from industry and politics to provide a definitive answer. After an hour, a questioner said: This is all good stuff, but I still don’t know what levelling up means. Everyone nodded and we were back to the beginning again.
There were the beginnings of rumblings of dissatisfaction within the conference and although Johnson got the rally he feels he deserves and let’s face it that’s the limit of our national story these days, the road ahead seems rocky. The sustenance provided by this conference was immediately satisfying but not very sustaining. Many delegates will return home still hungry.
It seems to me that the dividing line within the Conservative/Vote Leave coalition is between those who think that the current shocks to the economy are part of a plan and therefore worthwhile – or at least inevitable – and perhaps a little bit fun, at least at first, and those who think there is no coherent plan and fear the productivity slump that is imminent. Johnson and Sunak will be hoping that by the next election the UK is far enough through the business cycle for there to be enough inward investment (actual investment or through the buying of undervalued UK companies) for the media to have enough meat to convince people it was inevitable, or worth it, or both. There has been enough blowback from Johnson’s speech in the media this morning to suggest that this, like so much else, is wishful thinking.