Boris the shape shifter – yeh that sounds right – but is there substance to the shape?

It takes a lot to grind down the hard-working ideologues at the Guardian but Boris Johnson will stop at nothing.  There was a whiff of admiration amidst the self-loathing in the opinion columns “The Tories have become the party of optimists” and “Shapeshifting Tories have mastered playing to the crowd”

You might have thought the burdens of the premiership and near-death during Covid would dampen his natural ebullience.  But at this week’s Conservative party conference his autodidactic illumination of classical reference, historical allusion and ribaldry was undimmed.  Who else, a fortnight after – again – Guardian headlines “Boris admits he has six children”, would say that Britain has only 0.8% of the world’s population, despite our best efforts.

If you don’t read the Guardian (and maybe even if you do), he is certainly good value for money.

After the bravura impact, came the attacks on the substance.  Economic illiteracy was the theme.  Certainly he does not run the standard neo-classical lines like his predecessors.  Nor does his “levelling up” agenda have a definition yet. And he and his ministers have had some nasty spats with the business establishment over labour shortages and supply chain disruption.

But the agenda may have a coherence that the man himself is sometimes wanting.

The uniting part is market-driven innovation – and ensuring that this occurs all over the United Kingdom.  As the Economist sensibly points out – this is the creative destruction of capitalism, the meat and drink of any self-respecting right of centre party.

And you don’t achieve this by dinky little trade deals that adjust a tariff here and a quota there and seal the deal with more stultifying regulation.  Nor by protecting intricate supply chains from disruption.  You do it by putting business under competitive pressure to adopt and adapt – through genuinely free and open trade with similarly-minded countries.

He suggested the political linkage of this to his new alliance – an idea he described as transparently right, despite the cries of the “raucous squawkous anti-AUKUS caucus” (think we got that one right)

So low-skilled immigration is identified as a costly social harm.  Businesses which rely on it will have to change.  If you want highly skilled workers, train them, or make the government an offer for a visa which it cannot refuse. Or go under.

The Economist also identified localism – substantial devolution of powers – as crucial to this goal.  It did not go the next step and explain how this might dovetail with the government’s contempt for the centralised public service that failed it during Brexit.  That is the civil servants living in Labour-voting London.

Apply this thinking to Britain’s BBC – seen by many of the government’s supporters as a petri dish for wokeism funded by an indirect levy on the dying terrestrial television advertising market. 

The compromises were also significant.

Gone were any lingering hints that there might be the teeniest question in principle over a Cuban-style healthcare system (albeit better funded).  Rather that the rest of government (or taxpayers) will need to go on short rations to feed the bipartisan beast.  And if you can’t really control something from the centre, there are more opportunities for devolution of non-control.

Boris also committed Britons to a vast – if yet undefined – programme of what is misleadingly termed green investment.  Yet it is clear that he expects that to be mobilised and delivered by the private sector.  So was Think Big for that matter.  Government-breaking policy decisions have still to be made which will determine if the costs are crippling or merely burdensome.

So at the end of the verbal pyrotechnics, you might make a familiar and perhaps comfortable summary: the private sector will get us out of it; the government will try to help it in the right direction; the rest of us will be balancing the books.

And at the heart there was a sotto voce reminder – pure Margaret Thatcher but with a deeper pedigree – it’s not up to me, it’s up to you.

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