In Depth

Five things we learned from the Conservatives’ first virtual party conference

Boris Johnson plans for bright future as Rishi Sunak hints at looming austerity

Following months of criticism over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Boris Johnson has used the Conservative’s first virtual party conference to show that he has not lost his “mojo”.

Delivering his closing speech to the four-day event, Johnson this morning outlined a string of planned reforms for the UK economy, which he insisted was “in pretty good shape” but has some “chronic underlying problems”.

After the party’s resounding victory in last year’s general election, the conference was “supposed to be a champagne-soaked victory rally”, yet instead often resembled a “rather lonely Zoom-based wake” amid growing concerns about rising coronavirus cases, says The Independent

But such gloom aside, what did we learn from the event?

Johnson’s fighting talk

In a speech “light on policy but heavy on vision”, the prime minister pledged to “use the coronavirus crisis as a catalyst for change”, The Guardian reports.

Pointing to Winston Churchill’s Second World War coalition government as a model, Johnson described how they “sketched out a vision of the post-war new Jerusalem that they wanted to build”.

“That is what we’re doing now, in the teeth of this pandemic,” he added.

Laying out his goals, the PM said he wants to turn “generation rent into generation buy” by introducing long-term, fixed-rate mortgages of up to 95% of the value of a home for first-time purchasers.

Johnson also pledged that offshore wind would power every UK home in ten years, in what The Telegraph describes as an “optimistic and forward-looking speech that ended with a utopian vision of the future”.

Rounding off his keynote address, Johnson offered a message of hope, saying that “it seems tough now... but I believe it is a measure of the greatness of this country that we will not let it hold us back or slow us down.

“Even in the darkest moments we can see a bright future ahead.”

A return to austerity?

One of the most talked about moments of the conference has stoked speculation that the future may be very different to that outlined by Johnson.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak told delegates on Monday that “hard choices” would need to be made to pay down the debt incurred during the pandemic, and made a George Osborne-style commitment to honour the government’s “sacred responsibility” to balance the books.

“We will protect the public finances,” Sunak said. “If instead we argue there is no limit on what we can spend, that we can simply borrow our way out of any hole, what is the point in us?”

Although some commentators believe the chancellor was hinting at possible public spending cuts, rumours in Westminster suggest that he may opt instead for tax increases in order to avoid alienating the party’s new “red wall” voters

However, economists have warned that both approaches - cutting spending or raising taxes to tackle record debt levels - “would be counterproductive, because it would risk choking off Britain’s economic recovery, and would damage future income for the Exchequer”, says The Guardian’s economics correspondent Richard Partington.

Law and order

Home Secretary Priti Patel used her speech to “declare war” on the tactics of some Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion protestors, says The Telegraph.

Criticising the “hooliganism and thuggery” seen on the UK’s streets, Patel said there was “no excuse” for violent behaviour from protesters, adding that police had the “backing of the government, backing of our party, our government and our prime minister” in their efforts to tackle the demonstrations. 

“This government will always defend the right to protest,” she told the conference on Sunday. “That right is a fundamental pillar of our democracy, but the hooliganism and thuggery we have seen is not - it is indefensible.

“There is no excuse for pelting flares at brave police officers, for throwing bikes at police horses, for disrespecting the Cenotaph or vandalising the statue of Sir Winston Churchill, one of the greatest protectors of our freedoms who has ever lived.” 

Tackling fake news

Health Secretary Matt Hancock used the conference stage on Sunday to reveal government plans to tackle misinformation online about vaccines.

“Sadly, there a small number of people who make an active case against vaccines,” said Hancock, who is currently under fire over a track-and-track glitch that saw the number of reported new Covid cases soar by almost 23,000 on Sunday

“We have got a programme of work under way to get the counter narrative out there to explain the importance and safety of vaccines.”

Virtual teething problems

Having touted their virtual conference platform as a technological solution to problems posed by social distancing, the Tories got off to a bumpy start as viewers reported that the website crashed during an appearance by Cabinet Minister Michael Gove.

Viewers who had paid to register for the conference “posted screenshots on social media of error messages received as they logged in to watch the ‘fireside chat’ between Mr Gove and West Midlands mayor Andy Street”, Metro reports.

But the glitch “seemed to be sorted out within around half an hour, with viewers able to access the conference to catch the end of Mr Gove’s appearance”, The Independent adds.

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