Boris Johnson may be in total command of his party, but his grip on the UK’s various crises is much shakier

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On the day almost 6 million people saw their universal credit cut by £20 a week, Boris Johnson didn’t mention it in his speech to the Tory conference in Manchester. Nor was there any reference to the queues at petrol stations, empty shelves in the shops, or the hike in energy prices.

It was his first in-person Tory conference speech since his thumping 2019 election victory – but in wanting his party to enjoy a delayed celebration, he looked complacent about the nation’s current problems.

In a speech light on new policy, the good news prime minister talked up the prospect of wage rises for those in work – in the private sector, at least. He has found a new tune and we will hear it a thousand times before the next general election: a long-overdue “change of direction” to a “high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy”. He vowed: “We are not going back to the same old broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills and low productivity, all of it enabled and assisted by uncontrolled immigration."

In Johnson’s sights were not just Labour but previous Tory governments – not, of course, including Margaret Thatcher’s. He dared to invoke her to defend his tax rises for the NHS and social care. He insisted, in a nod to jittery Tory members and MPs, that his reforms would eventually result in a “low-tax economy”, but acknowledged that they would “take time and sometimes it will be difficult”. He declared his government had the “guts” to change and level up the country “after decades of drift and dither”. This, he hopes, is his antidote to voters becoming tired of the Tories – or their record – after 11 years in power and counting. He wants his government to look like a new one, nothing to do with the Cameron and May administrations.

However, business figures attending the conference are dismayed by what they see as a classic attempt at diversion from the government’s mounting supply-chain problems. “The answer is for the prime minister to get a grip, not start a blame game and point the finger at business,” one told me.

Johnson appears to have stumbled into his new dividing line with Labour on immigration and wages by accident, rather than design. Last week, ministers insisted the supply-chain problems were nothing to do with Brexit. Now it suits Johnson to own what he claims as a positive Brexit benefit. His next three-word slogan will surely be: “Brexit is working!” However, a new poll from Savanta ComRes suggests people are not yet convinced: 52 per cent believe Brexit has been a failure, and only 36 per cent see it as a success. More than half of Tory voters think continued supply-chain problems will worsen the party’s chances at the next election.

Allies insist that Johnson spotted, in Keir Starmer’s willingness to offer 100,000 visas to foreign lorry drivers, the opportunity to reprise the argument over free movement and international labour. The Tories are already planning an election poster campaign on Starmer’s immigration stance and Angela Rayner’s attack on some senior Tories as “scum” (portraying that as an attack on Tory voters).

Johnson has long been looking for a way to make Brexit an issue at the next election, and has probably found it. “It will be bad economics if wage rises are not matched by economic growth and they fuel inflation,” one former minister said. “But it’s good politics – pretty shameless, but it might work.” One cabinet minister admitted that business had a point when complaining that the government (as well as companies) should have prepared better for the end of free movement – not least to ensure that the 1.5 million unemployed fill as many of the record one million vacancies as possible.

Some ministers worry privately that Johnson’s success in framing the debate will make him even less likely to come up with a plan to get the country through the shortages and price rises this winter. “There are going to be a lot of bumps in the road, and no one knows how big they will be,” one admitted.

Johnson has dominated every day of the conference and, with the help of his new economic mantra, has pushed other cabinet ministers out of the spotlight. That’s the way he likes it. Johnson may be the “showman” Starmer depicted last week, but in Toryland, this week’s production has been a success. And Starmer was wrong to say that the great entertainer has “nothing left to show”. He conjured up a message that will play well, not least in the red-wall seats.

As the rapturous reception to his speech in the hall showed, Johnson is in total command of his party. But events in the real world, in the hard winter ahead, will test him to the limit.

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