It’s always sunny in Manchester

By Fraser Raleigh

Sunshine may sometimes be hard to come by in Manchester, but it’s rarely far from a Boris Johnson speech.  

At the end of a relatively uneventful and policy-light conference, the party faithful were sent back to their constituencies with the clear instruction to ignore the dark clouds on the horizon and once again back Boris to transport them to the post-COVID sunlit uplands he insisted await.  

The details on how to get there were few and far between, but with the Budget and Spending Review, Levelling Up White Paper and COP26 summit all due within the coming weeks, the Prime Minister was unapologetically in ‘big picture’ mode for his first in-person conference speech since the 2019 election. Indeed the speech had more of the feel of one of his pre-election rallies during the 2019 campaign than a traditional conference speech.  

That election was built around the three-word slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’. The new one is of course ‘Build Back Better’, an omnipresent slogan this week that – as with ‘Levelling Up’ – is both broad enough to wrap around any policy and vague enough to be attacked as vacuous.  

Labour did just that, calling it an ‘empty promise’ in a tweet that attacked ‘Another Empty Slogan’. Privately, however, there will be concern that – empty or not – it could prove a more effective rallying cry than Labour’s own slightly amorphous conference slogan of ‘Stronger Future Together’. 

But if the Prime Minister was all sunshine, then, what about those clouds? 

The closest his speech came to acknowledging the spectre of a cost-of-living squeeze from rocketing gas bills, petrol supply shortages, National Insurance rises and creeping inflation was to again frame the challenges as short-term bumps in the road to the “high wage, high skill, high productivity and yes, thereby low tax economy” that he linked back to the Brexit vote in 2016. 

The risk for the Conservatives, though, is that voters see them delivering a weather report that is at odds with what they see when they look out of their own windows.  

Do they see an economy re-opening confidently after the shock of COVID, with unemployment falling, wages rising, and new investment levelling up their area?  

Or do they see a creaking, outdated model, with the NHS and social care failing to recover from the pandemic, families struggling following the end of the Universal Credit uplift, and living standards falling? 

Both Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson have pinned their future prospects to which vision will feel more real for voters over the coming years.  

And while the Conservatives have maintained a consistent lead over Labour this year, there were some warning signs in a Sky News poll yesterday that showed Starmer came across as “more competent, in touch and agreeable” than Johnson in their respective speeches.  

So while Conservatives leaving Manchester yesterday may have been cheered by the Prime Minister’s unshakably sunny disposition, they need that optimism to translate to voters or risk looking like the party just hasn’t noticed it’s raining.