Johnson denounces ‘know-nothing cancel culture’ in speech that delights Tory activists

PM tells party conference his government is first to have the ‘guts’ to tackle Britain’s problems

Boris Johnson has promised to reshape Britain in an upbeat speech to the Conservative party conference that dismissed fuel, food and labour shortages as evidence of economic recovery. He said that controlling immigration would push up wages and increase productivity, criticising previous Conservative governments for failing to address long-term structural weaknesses in the economy.

“When I stood on the steps of Downing Street I promised to fix this crisis, and after decades of drift and dither,” he said.

“This can-do government, this government that got Brexit done, that’s getting the Covid vaccine rollout done, is going to get social care done and we are going to deal with the biggest underlying issues of our economy and society.”

Mr Johnson delighted party activists with a 45-minute speech stuffed with jokes and puns, poking fun at cabinet colleagues and ridiculing Labour leader Keir Starmer. He cited the achievements of sports stars including the England football team and tennis player Emma Raducanu as exemplars of British excellence.


“Not only the achievement of those elite athletes but a country that is proud to be a trailblazer, to judge people not by where they come from but by their spirit, by what is inside them,” he said.

“That is the spirit that is the same across this country, in every town and village and city, that can be found in the hearts and minds of kids growing up everywhere and that is the spirit we are going to unleash.”

Mr Johnson added his voice to those of cabinet colleagues at the party conference in Manchester who denounced what they described as a “woke” campaign to rewrite British history.

“We really are at risk of a kind of know-nothing cancel culture, a know-nothing iconoclasm. And so we Conservatives will defend our history and cultural inheritance, not because we are proud of everything but because trying to edit it now is as dishonest as a celebrity trying furtively to change his entry in Wikipedia and it’s a betrayal of our children’s education,” he said.

Benefit cut

The prime minister claimed that his was the first government with the “guts” to tackle Britain’s underlying problems but anti-poverty campaigners noted that his speech came on the day that millions of Britain’s poorest people receive a £20 (€23.50) a week benefit cut.

“The prime minister has not had the guts to look the millions of people whose incomes are being cut today in the eye and tell them how they are expected to get through the year ahead,” said the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Katie Schmueker.

“The prime minister’s attempt to strike an upbeat tone is completely at odds with the despair people are feeling and the cost-of-living crisis we are now facing. He has chosen to cut £20 a week from the incomes of millions including many who are in work as well as those who cannot work due to sickness, disability or caring responsibilities.”

Labour dismissed the speech as “vacuous” and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) criticised the prime minister’s failure to outline how he planned to move Britain towards an economy based on high wages, high skills, high investment and high growth.

“The PM has only stated his ambition on wages. This needs to be backed up by action on skills, on investment and on productivity. Ambition on wages without action on investment and productivity is ultimately just a pathway for higher prices,” director general Tony Danker said.

“It’s a fragile moment for our economy. So, let’s work in partnership to overcome the short-term challenges and fulfil our long-term potential.”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times