What's the plot of the Boris Johnson show?

Boris Johnson watching Rishi Sunak's speech. Credit: PA

Here are eight things I've learned from the Conservative Party's first post-Covid conference in Manchester.

1) This party is dominated by its leader, Boris Johnson, to an extent that I've not witnessed in my lifetime. Even the Conservative Party of Margaret Thatcher was a lesser cult of personality.

None of Johnson's colleagues has announced anything of great substance. 

All policies unveiled so far have broadly been good housekeeping (such as Sunak's extension of assorting training schemes). And no speaker has scintillated or electrified delegates (though Sunak's performance at the lectern is incomparably less wooden than it used to be).

The most symbolic manifestation of the cult of Johnson is that almost the entire conference is taking place in a room about the size of the studios used by a popular ITV game show or chat show. Only one speaker is allowed a proper auditorium: Boris Johnson.

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His close colleagues routinely use phrases about him like "the genius of Boris", or "Boris's extraordinary leadership".

Few ever lavished such plaudits on May, Cameron, or Major. To use Johnson's favourite franglais, "le Tory Party, c'est lui". His backbenchers may increasingly have reservations about him, but his ministers are a fan club.

2) I would say that the PM's big idea, "levelling up", is a work in progress, except that may be too flattering.

Having just listened to the speech of the newly appointed secretary of state for levelling up, Michael Gove, I now know less about levelling up than I thought I did before.

Gove said "levelling up means four things": strengthening local leadership, which is something we heard from Johnson before the summer recess, and that it would raise living standards, improve public services and enhance citizens' pride in where they live.

These aims would be meaningful if Gove could name a politician who campaigns to lower living standards, destroy public services and reduce citizens' pride in their local area.

"Levelling up" remains the Scarlet Pimpernel of Johnson's programme: impossible to pin down.

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3) Boris Johnson is currently obsessed with one possible underpinning of a subset of his levelling up agenda, namely that wages are going up.

This is the Brexit dividend, he thinks, in that leaving the EU has reversed the wage-suppressing inward flows of cheap, relatively unskilled labour from the rest of the European Union. Johnson bangs on about this every time there's a camera in his face.

4) There seems little recognition from Johnson that when wages go up without a corresponding change in working practices or investment in new kit that would boost output, it leads to a REDUCTION in productivity - which is either inflationary or crippling for employers, or both.

The PM keeps talking about the imperative of increasing productivity. But he won't acknowledge that in the short term at least Brexit is reducing productivity.

5) The PM is right that when the relative price of labour rises significantly, as it is, businesses will invest to enhance productivity - in machines to harvest fruit and vegetables, in driverless lorries, in robots that will do basic chores in care homes, and so on.

But it will take years for this investment to bear fruit.  In the meantime, there is a risk that wage inflation takes hold, and that the Bank of England feels compelled to raise interest rates - which could dampen the necessary investment.

6) Sunak, presumably with the PM's blessing, today set an economic policy framework that will provide funding to train the employed and unemployed, and improve productivity, but will refuse requests to borrow to fund additional transfers to poor people through the benefits system.

After the 15 percentage point increase in the national debt caused by Covid support measures, additional borrowing would be "immoral", Sunak said, and increasing benefits was the wrong way to help hard-working families.

This is a Thatcher-style cruel-to-be-kind approach to reconstructing the economy.

7) There is a worst-case scenario of interest rates being raised when living standards are already being savaged by rising prices for food, energy and other essentials, assorted tax rises and Sunak's removal of the £20 weekly uplift to universal credit.

The probability of this worst case is not trivially small. Johnson's advisers and cabinet colleagues tell me they are conscious of it, and that the economic conditions in the UK for probably the next two years are likely to be difficult, to put it mildly. 

As I've been saying for some time, we are at the start of an extended period of cost-of-living increases.

8) "There is no chance of an election in the next two years" said one member of the government who has the ear of the PM.

"It is mad that anyone should think otherwise. There's too much to do and we'd be insane to go to the country until we're through the other side of this mess".

To be clear, there is a clue in the conference slogan that Johnson is playing a long game.

"Getting on with the job" is the backdrop to every speech and conference hall fireside chat. It's ostentatiously dull.