In an upbeat address peppered with jokes, but light on new policy, the prime minister claimed a high-wage, high-skilled economy was being created in the wake of Brexit and the pandemic.

He also defended tax rises to pay for the NHS and vowed to fix social care.

The 45-minute speech was his first to a conference since the pandemic began.

In it, the prime minister said the overwhelming Conservative general election victory in 2019 placed an onus on his government to deliver change demanded by voters.

The main theme of his speech was "levelling up", with the PM saying that reducing gaps between regions would ease pressure on south-eastern England, while boosting places that felt left behind.

He also repeated pledges set out at during his party's conference this week in Manchester to crack down on crime, improve transport links and broadband, and reform the housing market.

And he sought to reassure Tories anxious about plans to increase National Insurance to pay for the NHS and social care by claiming it was what predecessor Margaret Thatcher would have done, if the economy had been hit by a "meteorite" like the pandemic.

"She would have wagged her finger and said that more borrowing now is just higher interest rates and even higher taxes later," he said.

An unflinchingly upbeat vision

Boris Johnson is an optimist.

The prime minister wants a new economic model with better pay and conditions. He wants to persuade voters his is the party to distribute wealth and opportunity more evenly across the UK. He wants people to feel good about the future.

Levelling up has been the slogan repeated by ministers at this conference. We only got a sliver of meat on the bones today. This was a speech thin on policy, big on jokes and rhetorical flourishes.

Conservatives love Mr Johnson because he makes them feel good - it's a strategy that is key to understanding his success as a politician.

But will it be enough? There are some difficult months ahead for many people.

Rising prices, supply chain issues, the end of the universal credit top-up and furlough.

Many Conservatives acknowledge the cost of living squeeze - and are worried about the impact.

Critics will accuse the prime minister of ignoring those big issues in favour of what they see as vague promises for the future.

But the hope in Manchester was that Boris Johnson's unflinchingly upbeat vision of a post-Brexit, post-pandemic Britain is as popular with voters as it is with Tory activists.

The Conservative conference has taken place amid concerns over rising inflation, supply chain problems, and petrol and worker shortages.

But Mr Johnson insisted that the present problems were the result of an economic rebound in the wake of Covid shutdowns.

He added that controls on immigration represented the "change that people voted for" in the 2016 Brexit referendum, while also promising to end declining home ownership among young people by building more housing.

He announced a £3,000-a-year bonus for teachers, as an incentive for struggling areas of England to recruit maths and science specialists. The policy replaces a similar nationwide scheme that has recently been phased out.

Downing Street said the new "levelling up premium" would cost £60m, but no details have yet been given over which areas will qualify.

"There is no reason why the inhabitants of one part of the country should be geographically fated to be poorer than others," Mr Johnson said.

"You will find talent, genius, flair, imagination, enthusiasm - all of them evenly distributed around this country. But opportunity is not."

Mr Johnson referred to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who was recently photographed dancing in an Aberdeen nightclub, as "Jon Bon Govi" - an allusion to the rock star Jon Bon Jovi.

He also mocked Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, whom he has frequently dubbed "Captain Hindsight".

"If Columbus had listened to Captain Hindsight, he'd be famous for discovering Tenerife," he joked.

But Sir Keir accused Mr Johnson of "playing this game where he's pretending that he's just sort of just landed from the Moon and he's looking around and saying, 'Things look pretty awful around here, we need a bit of levelling up, things are so awful'".

He told ITV's Peston programme: "He and the Tories have been in government for 11 years, so we're in this state because of the way that they have governed the country."

The CBI business lobby group said Mr Johnson said set out a "compelling vision" but had so far "only stated his ambition" on raising wages.

Shevaun Haviland, who heads the British Chambers of Commerce, said firms supported the aim of a higher-wage, higher-skill economy but warned: "This will not happen overnight."


Boris Johnson says he wants a "high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity, and low tax economy"

Dehenna Davison has been MP for Bishop Auckland since 2019