Westminster Watcher: Prime Minister’s speech ‘an optimistic view of the future’

Prime Minister’s ‘vacuous’ speech at the Conservative Party conference was full of rhetoric but also full of boundless Boris optimism’ – and it mentioned buses 

I listened to the Prime Minister’s speech at the Conservative Party conference with interest. It was typical Boris Johnson. High on rhetoric, high on jokes and high on obscure literary and political references. But not much detail. I don’t think Boris Johnson does detail.  

At least he mentioned buses again. Our Prime Minister really does love buses. Aside from his speech, buses don’t appear to have featured much this year, even at the many transport-related fringe meetings. 

Rarely do ministers make any major announcements at fringe meetings anyway, while Grant Shapps did not have a major conference platform so far as I could tell, relying on an “in discussion” session with political commentator and broadcaster Iain Dale.   

From a transport perspective, and certainly from a bus perspective, we learnt nothing new. Party conferences these days are about promoting the party’s image, and especially its leader, to the wider public through the press and TV coverage. Except on rare occasions do they contribute to policy evolution, at least at a detailed departmental level.  

Spending cuts coming 

With the party conference season behind us all, attention will now be on the Comprehensive Spending Review. This will be a spending review like no other. It will be fascinating to watch how Rishi Sunak starts to pay down the national debt, which now stands at 100% of GDP while seeking to deliver on the levelling up agenda, which has a high spending profile to support it.   

The reality is that there are going to be spending cuts or further tax increases, or both. We can be sure that the spending commitments will be highlighted in big, bold capital letters while the cuts will be buried in the detail of the infamous Treasury Red Book. There will be a lot of smoke and mirrors in evidence on 27 October and the days following as we seek to interpret the real content of the spending review. 

Stagecoach takeover 

For the bus industry, the news of the day must surely be the proposed takeover of Stagecoach by National Express. When this comes to pass, it will be the end of an era. But things never last forever. With the policy agenda for public transport shifting back in favour of greater public sector control and with the long-term demand for bus and rail travel unclear, it seemed one of the “big five” was always likely to exit the industry.   

Whether National Express’s move on Stagecoach is a risky venture or an astute commercial move remains to be seen. It feels that National Express has made the move to buy volume and shore up its balance sheet as a reaction to the industry’s current difficulties rather than being a carefully-thought-through strategic plan. 

In many ways, it will be a sad day when the Stagecoach name no longer exists. Just as Woolworths was once a recognised high street brand, so Stagecoach was synonymous with public transport provision. You could barely go anywhere without seeing one of its vehicles in operation.   

Of course, Stagecoach was Sir Brian Souter. I always felt that once he started to step back from day-to-day control of the business, it started to lose its drive and its dynamism.  

When the company exited the rail sector – through no fault of its own – and with the threat of franchising in one of its key markets in Greater Manchester, it felt that the business’s long-term future was uncertain. And with its share price a fraction of what it was, a takeover must always have been on the cards.   

I wonder if this is a one-off or whether we might see other private operators go the same way. These are uncertain times indeed for private bus and rail companies. 

Business criticism  

But back to the Conservative party conference and Boris Johnson’s speech. The context, of course, much spun through the media in the run-up to his speech was the government’s criticism of business and its reliance on low wage immigrant workers.   

To hear a Conservative government so openly critical of business was a very un-Conservative turn of events. This will have gone down badly with business representatives.  

However, such criticism should also be viewed through the prism of Brexit – what’s the point of Brexit, Boris Johnson will ask, if business continues to rely on cheap imported labour rather than train up UK workers with the promise of decent pay and conditions?         

Typical ‘Boris optimism’  

The speech was criticised for being vacuous. Most conference speeches are, but this was typical Boris Johnson. Full of rhetoric but also full of boundless Boris optimism.   

So don’t look to the speech for any kind of detailed assessment of the policy agenda for the run-up to the next general election, whenever that may be, or how this agenda might be implemented. But see it through the prism of a typical Boris Johnson speech, an optimistic view of the future for a post-Brexit high-wage, high-productivity and high-skill economy and no return to “failed” solutions of the past.   

It’s a bold message, and in some respects, it’s a very Conservative message. More importantly, despite all the problems engulfing this government at present and despite the criticism from business, it’s a message that the electorate might just like to hear.