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

Promoting opportunity across the UK is "our mission as Conservatives", Boris Johnson has told his party conference.

He told the audience the UK was heading towards a higher wage, higher productivity and lower tax economy.

In an upbeat leader's speech peppered with jokes, he said reducing regional inequality was the "greatest project that any government can embark on".

The 45-minute conference address was his first directly to Tory members since the Covid pandemic.

Mr Johnson called his government a reforming, can-do government, which after "decades of drift and dither" would reform social care and opportunities across the UK.

And he insisted reducing "aching gaps" between regions would "take the pressure off" south-eastern England, as well as boosting places that felt left behind.

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Reform of the housing market, boosting infrastructure, better broadband, cracking down on crime and better transport links were all referenced as tools to boost the "levelling up" agenda.

And he vowed to deliver a "long overdue" change in approach by controlling immigration in a bid to boost wages.

This week's conference in Manchester has taken place amid concerns over rising inflation, supply chain problems, and petrol and worker shortages.

But Mr Johnson insisted that the "present stresses and strains" were the result of an economic rebound in the wake of Covid shutdowns.

'Levelling up premium'

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

He announced a £3,000 yearly bonus for teachers, as an incentive for struggling areas of England to recruit maths and science teachers.

The policy replaces a similar nationwide scheme that has recently been phased out.

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

Image source, PA MediaImage caption, Mr Johnson's wife Carrie joined him on stage after the speech

"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.

"And it is our mission as Conservatives to promote opportunity with every tool we have."

Speaking before the Budget later this month, he defended his recent decision to hike taxes to pay for the NHS and social care – a move which has angered some of his own MPs.

He insisted that raising taxes to pay for investment was more responsible than allowing borrowing to rise further, adding that the pandemic had left a "huge hole" in the public finances.

He added that former Conservative PM Margaret Thatcher – an idol of the party's right wing – would have agreed with his approach.

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

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 slither 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 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."

She added that at the moment, "targeted immigration" was a "sensible way to address critical national skills shortages".

Labour party chair Anneliese Dodds said the PM's "vacuous speech" had "summed up this whole Conservative conference".

She added that, after a decade in power, it had become clear the Conservatives "don't have a clue" how to offer a "fairer, greener and more secure future".

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