Boris Johnson vows to take bold decisions to make country stronger from pandemic

Boris Johnson details four major climate goals

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His Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke predicted the recovery will “exceed expectations”. As the Prime Minister faced the most important Tory Party conference of his career, Mr Johnson said pay was on the up across Britain – “fundamentally a good thing” – and promised the UK would become a “well-paid, well-skilled, highly productive economy”. He said: “For the first time in a decade we are seeing wages going up around the country. “Wages are going up faster for those on lower incomes. That is what we mean by levelling up.

“What the UK shouldn’t be doing is to continue to try to be a low-wage, low-skills, low-productivity economy.”

He added, during a visit to Leeds General Infirmary: “People don’t want that. They want us to be a well-paid, well-skilled, highly productive economy and that’s where we’re going.”

Polling by Opinium last night showed the Tories have now extended their lead over Labour by one point, to 39 percent versus 35 percent.

Mr Johnson faces his party today with a backdrop of the fuel crisis – and growing fears for winter supplies. There is also a hunger from veteran and recent Tory MPs alike for the PM to reveal his plans and for a return to traditional party values.

Some 10,000 Tory members are expected at the conference in Manchester.

The Prime Minister said: “Only the Conservatives are getting on with the job, tackling the long-term challenges this country faces.

“That means taking the big, bold decisions on the priorities people care about – like on social care, on supporting jobs, on climate change, tackling crime and levelling up.

“This Conservative government has a track record of delivering on the people’s priorities: we Got Brexit Done and secured a deal with the EU –  keeping our election promise.

“On Covid, we rolled out unprecedented levels of economic support, protecting livelihoods and keeping businesses afloat. And thanks to our NHS, scientists and so many others, our successful vaccine rollout has saved thousands of lives, prevented countless hospitalisations and has allowed the economy and society to begin returning to normality.

“All of this shows we are delivering – and now it is time to go further, not only to recover but to Build Back Better with decisive action on more jobs, more police and supporting health and social care.

“The Conservatives are getting on with the job, with a strong and united team.”

In his first interview since taking the Treasury job, Mr Clarke said that the “fundamentals are there” for the UK to succeed.

He said: “This is the first opportunity to reset after the height of the pandemic and to get back to that core mission we were elected to deliver. It has been the most extraordinary period of most of our lives. There is no getting away from the fact that we have spent £400billion responding to the Covid crisis and making sure not just the health service is properly supported but families and communities and businesses are supported.

“That has come at a massive cost to the Exchequer and that is very serious.”

But he continued: “Thanks to the vaccine programme we really are in a situation where we can move forward. The employment situation is genuinely very strong.

“There are more than a million vacancies in the employment market, unemployment has fallen seven months in a row. 

“I feel pretty optimistic we are in a position where the next few years are going to be very exciting.

“There is going to be a chance to exceed expectations and get the country to feel very good.”

He said despite a National Insurance rise to pay for care and NHS backlogs, the Tories are “absolutely still the party of low tax. I believe people know instinctively how better to spend their money on their priorities more than a Government does.

“We all hope the economy will grow, and grow robustly. As it does, reducing the burden of tax on everyone ought to be a key priority. I know it is something the Chancellor shares, that we are fundamentally committed to making sure the burden of tax as the situation improves, goes down.”

When the Teessider became MP for Middlesbrough and South and East Cleveland in 2017, Mr Clarke was part of the fresh generation of “red wall” Tory MPs – the levelling up agenda is close to his heart.

He said: “It is about making sure the economy of the North and Midlands grows at a faster rate than we have seen before and we don’t have growth so heavily skewed to London and the South-east.

“Much more than that I think it is about the human potential of areas like mine. Life chances have to change as well.”

He thinks people in the North-east are already “walking an inch higher” because of investment, jobs and new industries there.

“What an area like Teesside wants to see is that we are listened to – and fundamentally the last Labour government, although so many of its leading figures came from Teesside, they didn’t listen.

“Brexit was the moment that crystallised this.”

Mr Clarke is a Brexiteer but says some critics want to blame Brexit “too easily” for problems such as the lack of lorry drivers.

Opinium said seven in ten voters felt the Government reacted badly to the HGV crisis, including more than half of Tory voters.

Nearly half of all voters (49 percent) felt Brexit was having a negative impact on the economy and three in five (59 percent) think Brexit has gone badly, while 32 percent believe it has gone well. But Mr Clarke said: “It is a cop-out to say it is about Brexit.

“The real story of Brexit…is the opportunities it has unlocked.

“From the vaccines programme, which simply would not have happened at the pace that it did had we been a member of the EU, to things like the Free Port programme, which will make a big difference in areas like mine.

“The HGV sector as a whole has an older age profile and there is a shortage of new entrants which dates back well beyond recent months. This is a structural challenge exacerbated by Covid.

“We have got to put an end to the reliance on cheaper foreign labour which is exactly why people voted to leave the EU.

“We need to work in the context that this is a problem we need to fix at home.”

However, backbench Tories made it clear that Mr Johnson still faces challenges. Former Cabinet minister, and founder of the Blue Collar Movement, Esther McVey warned about a creeping “nanny state”.

“The Conservative Government appears to have lost its way in delivering on this timeless Conservative value of freedom.”

Common Sense group chairman Sir John Hayes said: “There needs to be a recognition of the huge problems we are facing in the workforce and an end to this notion that everyone has to be pushed to university rather than learn vocational skills.”

And Bury South MP Christian Wakeford was blunt: “Tell us what levelling up is. Until it means something, it doesn’t mean anything.”

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