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Boris Johnson’s ‘build, build, build’ speech: What he said and what he really meant

John Rentoul
POOL/AFP via Getty Images

What Boris Johnson said: It may seem a bit premature to make a speech now about Britain after Covid, when that deceptively nasty disease is still rampant in other countries.

What he really meant: Why am I on your TV, you might be asking. Haven’t I got a public health emergency to deal with? Well, yes, but it is rather difficult; I’d rather do a bit of colourful speechifying of the sunlit uplands variety.

What he said: We cannot continue simply to be prisoners of this crisis.

What he meant: Mistakes have been made. Do you mind if I change the subject?

What he said: Some things went right – and emphatically right. I think of the speed and efficiency with which we put up the Nightingales … of the drive and inventiveness of the British companies who rose to the ventilator challenge.

What he meant: Not everything I did went wrong. Some of the things that turned out not to be needed were done very well.

What he said: There was one big reason in the end that we were able to avert a far worse disaster, and that was because the whole of society came together.

What he meant: It was a disaster, but it could have been worse.

What he said: We are waiting as if between the flash of lightning and the thunderclap, with our hearts in our mouths, for the full economic reverberations to appear.

What he meant: I am like a rabbit trapped in a lightning flash, which is, after all, a lot brighter than car headlights.

What he said: Parts of government … seemed to respond so sluggishly, so that sometimes it seemed like that recurring bad dream when you are telling your feet to run and your feet won’t move.

What he meant: Being prime minister is a nightmare.

What he said: It is one of the most extraordinary features of the UK – in so many ways the greatest place on earth – that we tolerate such yawning gaps between the best and the rest.

What he meant: This country’s rubbish and the government really ought to do something about it. There ought to be a law.

What he said: We have a capital city that was, is and will be in so many ways the capital of the world.

What he meant: I used to be mayor of London, you know, and used to mock national politicians who had to give speeches on wet Wednesdays in Dudley. Well, here I am, on a Tuesday.

What he said: I just serve notice that we will not be responding to this crisis with what people called austerity. We are not going to try to cheese-pare our way out of trouble, because the world has moved on since 2008.

What he meant: We have a Conservative government in power during this crisis, not a Labour one, so we have reversed our position on austerity by 180 degrees.

What he said: We will double down on levelling up, and when I say level up, I don’t mean … launching some punitive raid on the wealth creators. I don’t believe in tearing people down any more than I believe in tearing down statues that are part of our heritage.

What he meant: I believe in shoehorning in populist references to the statue of Winston Churchill, even if hardly anyone significant has suggested pulling it down.

What he said: This government has not forgotten that we were elected to build 40 new hospitals, and we will – Matt Hancock is setting out the list in the next few days.

What he meant: Rest assured, the health secretary is good at numbers. He will count each hospital as two if not three or 16 hospitals, because they are all made up of different departments aren’t they?

What he said: We will continue and step up the biggest ever programme of funding the NHS, and we won’t wait to fix the problem of social care that every government has flunked for the last 30 years.

What he meant: Including my own. I promised a plan to fix it in the manifesto seven months ago and flunked it. I have been in government for nearly a year, and will soon be unable to blame my predecessors for everything that goes wrong.

What he said: I want to end the current injustice that means a pupil from a London state school is now 50 per cent more likely to go to a top university than a pupil from the West Midlands.

What he meant: Education is nothing to do with the mayor of London but I did a great job and I can do it again as mayor of the entire country.

What he said: We will back our police all the way, and give our justice system the powers we need to end the lunacy that stops us – for instance – deporting some violent offenders.

What he meant: There’s a paragraph here that Dominic said had to go in but I didn’t have time to find the right place for it, so I’ll whizz through with a bit of brio and promise to fix something I remember Tony Blair trying and failing to sort out.

What he said: We will protect the landscape with flood defences, and plant 30,000 hectares of trees every year, creating a new patchwork of woodlands to enchant and re-energise the soul.

What he meant: Poetry, is what it is.

What he said: We have learned the wonders of Zoom and MS Teams, the joys of muting or unmuting our colleagues at key moments.

What he meant: Poetry, comedy, high rhetoric. This is what I can write. And I can read it out well, too. Right, what’s next?

What he said: Four thousand brand new zero-carbon buses …

What he meant: Not yet, obviously, because we are asking people not to use public transport if possible.

What he said: It is this infrastructure revolution that will allow us to end that other chronic failure of the British state, decade after decade in which we have failed to build enough homes.

What he meant: No government can solve it; every prime minister promises to; but I am basically a newspaper columnist so I will now launch into some of my favourite why oh why oh why material.

What he said: Yes, we will insist on beautiful and low carbon homes, but covid has taught us the cost of delay –

What he meant: Whoops. That was the bit one of Dominic’s eagle-eyed underlings said we should take out.

What he said: – why are UK capital costs typically between 10 and 30 per cent higher than other European projects? Why is HS2 – transformational though it will be – going to cost us the equivalent of the GDP of Sri Lanka?

What he meant: Whoever is running this shambles needs to get a grip. There ought to be a law against such bone-headed government profligacy.

What he said: And so we will build better and build greener but we will also build faster, and that is why the chancellor and I have set up Project Speed to scythe through red tape and get things done.

What he meant: Red tape! Bonfire of controls! Cut back the bureaucracy! Send in the army! The editor of The Daily Telegraph will like this bit. Another well-paid column done.

What he said: I am conscious as I say all this that it sounds like a prodigious amount of government intervention.

What he meant: I am conscious as I say all this that this is the first time I have seen parts of this speech.

What he said: It is time now not just for a New Deal but a Fair Deal for the British people.

What he meant: It is time now to lift slogans, policies and whole prefabricated sections of Gordon Brown’s speeches from the Labour Party’s archives.

What he said: My friends I am not a communist.

What he meant: I have to say all this stuff; I am not going to do it. Your trust funds are safe; you may continue to donate to the Conservative Party.

What he said: This is Dudley the birthplace of Abraham Darby who massively accelerated the industrial revolution by using coke instead of charcoal to produce pig iron.

What he meant: The underling looked it up on Wikipedia in the car on the way here.

What he said: As part of our mission to reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, we should set ourselves the goal now of producing the world’s first zero-emission, long-haul passenger plane. Jet Zero, let’s do it.

What he meant: Let us rebuild the economy, one slogan at a time.

What he said: Though we are no longer a military superpower we can be a science superpower.

What he meant: Our best years as a nation are behind us.

What he said: But as we approach 4 July I am afraid that the dangers – as we can see in Leicester – have not gone away; the virus is out there, still circling like a shark in the water.

What he meant: This speech is, indeed, premature.

What he said: We will build, build, build, build back better, build back greener, build back faster.

What he meant: Put it to music, whack it on social media and Bob the Builder is your uncle.

What he said: Let’s take … the public spirit and the good humour of the entire population, and let’s brew them together with the superhuman energy of Captain Tom, bounding around his garden at the age of 100 and raising millions for charity.

What he meant: Let’s take that snake oil and sell it.

What he said: Let’s take that combination, that spirit bottle it, swig it, and I believe we will have found if not quite a magic potion, at least the right formula to get us through these dark times.

What he meant: Time for a bit of harmless fantasy to distract us from the incompetence of those terrible politicians.

What he said: We will not just bounce back, we will bounce forward – stronger and better and more united than ever before.

What he meant: We will bounce in all directions, like a demented stuffed tiger, in the hope that, just by chance, we find a way out of the appalling situation that someone or other has got us into.

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