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Johnson's speech was full of hot air. But it contained challenges to Labour

FOR all the predictable wild metaphors and unsubstantiated boasting, Boris Johnson’s speech to the Conservative Party conference indicated the battle lines on which he wants to fight the next general election.

And that’s as the party of Brexit. Tory attempts to blame Labour for the fact that we have not yet left the EU are disingenuous. Their own party has been in government since the referendum. A Conservative government negotiated the EU withdrawal agreement that MPs — including, twice, Johnson himself — repeatedly rejected. 

Labour accusations that the Tories have bungled the Brexit process are based on the indisputable fact that the Tories have held the reins of power throughout.

Politics is neither fair nor honest, though, and posing as the only party leader who will deliver Brexit is paying off for Johnson, whose run-in with the Supreme Court and successive defeats in the House of Commons have apparently improved the Conservative Party’s polling figures. That’s why the most dangerous lines in Johnson’s speech relate directly to Brexit: “I am afraid that after three-and-a-half years people are beginning to feel that they are being taken for fools. They are beginning to suspect that there are forces in this country that simply don’t want Brexit delivered at all.”

That is the narrative Labour will have to confront. Johnson piled on the abuse for Labour and its leader — they were “fratricidal anti-semitic Marxists” who will “whack up your taxes,” disband the army and break up Britain, while he even managed an obscure comparison of Jeremy Corbyn with Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko, a dig presumably serving the double purpose of linking him to Russia and implying he is too old for the job. 

He made a point of stressing his support for capitalism, even adding: “When did you last hear a Tory leader talk about capitalism?” in one of several slights at his predecessors. Johnson knows that the socialist revival in Labour is the only serious challenge to the status quo in this country. The waffle about his love for the NHS, public services and public transport — he apparently “wants” to expand bus transport — were designed to ape Labour’s promise of investment, an end to outsourcing and a modern integrated transport system.

These lines of attack are easy to rebut. Johnson’s paean to a “dynamic enterprise culture and great public services” bears no relation to the reality of modern Britain known to tens of millions of workers and public service users. Nurses and patients know how understaffed and underfunded the NHS is. Teachers and parents know their schools’ budgets have been cut. 

Collapses of firms like Carillion and Thomas Cook whose executives filled their boots on the road to oblivion have exposed the “enterprise culture” as a rigged system in which a parasitical capitalist elite sucks the life out of our industries and spits them out. Claims to be leading the world in investment in green technology are lies from a government that has cut funding for renewables and bent over backwards to give the fracking industry everything it asks for. Johnson’s faith that the virtues of the capitalist system will become plain if shouted loudly enough is out of sync with our times.

There is not much in Johnson’s speech the labour movement will find hard to answer. But his mockery of the opposition for not trying to remove him from office is a barb that will stick. His sneer that Corbyn is “determined to frustrate Brexit” will resonate. Labour is right to want to bring Leave and Remain voters together: but it needs to realise that forcing a second referendum on the country will do the opposite. 

Johnson’s Brexit card is disingenuous, but it is the only card he has. Labour needs to take it from him.

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