Bore da - and thank you Andrew for that welcome.
It’s an absolute pleasure to be here with so many good friends and colleagues.
The last time I joined you was in 2019 when I was serving as Home Secretary.
Your next conference was in March 2020…
Naturally, the event was completely overshadowed…
Uncertainty was rife…
The mood was grim…
The market was in a record-breaking downturn…
People really took my resignation as Chancellor to heart.
And don’t get me wrong, I was really flattered!
But the global lockdowns that came into place days later probably had something to do with it too…
It has been an unprecedented time for all of us as individuals, families, and yes as politicians.
The fact that we’re all able to be here today is not something we should take for granted,
And I’m very proud that the UK has led the world in learning to live with Covid.
It’s easy to forget, with all the other political news going on at the time…
but the UK was a global success story in the way we managed Omicron last Winter.
As Andrew mentioned, I was at a conference in Europe yesterday and there was still compulsory masks, testing and distancing.
So, I’m very happy to be here in Newtown today –
enjoying the freedom and breathing in the Welsh air.
Someone asked me if I was going to tell my joke again about my dad selling clothes in Newport.
But you don’t want to hear that again do you?
Growing up in Bristol, my Dad ran a market stall flogging clothes that my mum put together on our kitchen table.
He was always looking for new sites for selling them – including in Wales.
I remember the first time I went with my dad as he took his stall over the bridge to Newport.
I’ll admit, I was sceptical. But after a while I saw that he was doing exceptionally well.
He was selling a lot of clothes, turning over a lot of stock.
And he was also making friends. We were in a deeply Welsh, industrial town.
And people he’d never met were laughing and joking with him like they’d known each other for years.
I’d never seen that happen before.
So, as we packed up, I asked him what the secret of his success was – why was he so popular in Newport?
He replied: “It’s my accent son… They don’t think I’m Punjabi, they think I’m Welsh!”
Perhaps I’ll leave the accents to my friend Michael Gove…
-my accents are no better than my Welsh pronunciations
But if you didn’t remember that punchline, I don’t blame you.
Just think about how much has happened in the last three years.
How many challenges we have faced – as a party, as a society, as a Union and how much we have achieved.
We got Brexit done.
We defeated Corbyn and we won our biggest parliamentary majority in decades.
And we have of course been through over two years of national effort on Covid.
It was a huge privilege and challenge for me to come into this role to steer our country out of lockdown.
That was almost a year ago now.
I’ve learned a lot, and I have to say it’s been the toughest role I’ve had yet.
Not just in handling the direct impact of the pandemic…
But all of the indirect impacts that will be with us for years to come.
My top priorities have been
I wanted to explain to you today
What this has meant
What it will mean
And what I think we all need to be thinking about as Conservatives at this challenging time for the country.
There are two main lessons I wanted to share with you this morning.
The first is that we are stronger together.
The pandemic brought society together at many different levels.
From neighbours helping to bring food to neighbours.
To the collaborations between the best of our public and private sectors.
And yes, to the most successful union of nations in the world – the United Kingdom.
It was the UK that successfully invested in and delivered all those vital vaccines.
It was the UK that built a juggernaut of a testing infrastructure…
and acquired more antivirals than any country in Europe.
It was the UK that was the first and freest country in Europe to emerge from lockdowns.
It wasn’t England
it wasn’t Wales,
it wasn’t Scotland or Northern Ireland…
It was the United Kingdom!
And not only did we achieve all this together,
I don’t believe we would have achieved it if we were still in the European Union.
Remember - we were heavily criticised for not going with the EU vaccination programme.
Imagine if we were still a member?
At its best, Brexit has led to a change of mindset.
We cooperate and collaborate where we can and where it makes sense.
But now we’re more agile, dynamic and independent-minded.
We’re not afraid to follow our own path,
and as a sovereign country - we have the power to forge our own destiny.
The second lesson I would draw is this:
we must always see state control over our lives as a last resort.
As a country we sacrificed our freedoms and way of life to protect the elderly and vulnerable.
But as Conservatives we will never see state control as the default.
We know the impact that lockdowns have…
on jobs, life chances, education, mental health, and everything else.
And just as we know “government money” is taxpayers’ money…
we know that freedoms ultimately belong to citizens.
Because we will always be the party of freeing things up..
not locking things down.
We ignored all those calls from Labour
– both here and in London –
to keep restricting people’s lives, and all the consequences that come from that.
Whether it was banning people from getting exercise with Park Run…
or fining people for going to work…
Sometimes it felt like they were making up rules just to be different for the sake of it.
Take it from me - making the right decisions at the right time was not easy,
but I was determined that we had to learn to live with Covid.
You can see the alternative taken to the extreme in parts of China,
where they continue to pursue the so-called “Zero Covid” approach.
Locking people in their homes in an attempt to avoid any infections.
No matter what the cost to freedoms, livelihoods, and the global economy.
It’s a total fallacy, and a dystopian vision of what authoritarian governments can be capable of.
I’d like to say permanent erosions of our liberty would never happen here.
But imagine if we hadn’t won that election in 2019.
Imagine if it was the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in charge of our freedoms?
Aided and abetted by their great comrade and champion, the First Minister of Wales.
Do you think they would have ‘given them back’ as enthusiastically as we did?
That election may have saved us from more than we’ll ever know.
So thank you for everything you did to make it happen.
And now let’s put an end to the final Corbyn experiment:
the socialist experiment under Mark Drakeford
that is so badly failing the people of Wales.
As we look beyond Covid, the wider health challenges facing us are enormous – in all parts of the UK.
And while I of course don’t have direct responsibility for health in Wales,
I can speak to how we are tackling these challenges –
and how I know Conservatives would be doing so here, given the opportunity.
When I came into this role, I said that I was not just the Covid Secretary,
but the Health & Social Care Secretary.
There was no doubt about the biggest item spilling out of my in-tray:
an NHS waiting list that will get worse before it gets better…
projected to grow as high as 13 million.
No health secretary,
No society can accept that.
That’s why we have prioritised elective recovery –
check-ups, scans, surgeries…
with the biggest catch-up fund in the history of the NHS.
It’s an enormous task
but one I believe we are rising to with every fibre of our being.
I wish I could say the same about Welsh Labour’s mismanagement of this crisis.
They are failing to support doctors, nurses and patients when they need it most.
The latest data shows that 1 in 5 Welsh people are on the waiting list,
with an astonishing 1 in 4 Welsh patients waiting over a year for treatment.
You cannot trust Labour to manage the health service.
A party more focused on expanding the number of politicians in the Senedd
than the number of appointments in hospitals.
The Conservative Party is the party of the NHS,
and we are focused on delivering for the British people.
I know the local elections were tough for us.
Too many good people, public-spirited people,
no longer have the opportunity to serve their communities.
But this is a time for practical and competent leadership…
and that’s exactly what Andrew and his team can offer –
rolling up their sleeves to focus on the people’s priorities.
That’s what the Wales Office is doing under Simon and David.
And that’s what I see my Welsh colleagues doing every day in parliament
It’s especially great to see the talented new intake getting stuck in,
in what has been such a challenging few years:
- Robin Millar,
- Sarah Atherton,
- Simon Baynes,
- Virginia Crosbie,
- Craig Williams,
- Fay Jones,
- Jamie Wallis
and last but not least my fantastic PPS James Davies
When it comes to healthcare, I’m afraid much of the hard work is still to come.
Just think about the long-term challenges that healthcare must adapt to:
changing demographics and disease;
changing technology and expectations;
and unsustainable finances.
We were always going to come to a crossroads:
a point where we must choose between endlessly putting in more and more money,
or reforming how we do healthcare.
With all of the pressures on our system resulting from Covid,
we are at that crossroads now…
And I choose reform.
It’s impossible to identify an exact size of the State that maximises growth, freedom and health.
Our vision of the State is one that is small but strong;
empowering not constraining.
But with a health budget in England now bigger than the GDP of Greece…
I’m determined that we cannot allow the trajectory of the State to continue unchecked in the decades to come.
There won’t be any easy or quick wins in that…
But that’s the responsibility of governing.
If we don’t make sure the system is designed in the best way possible
at a time of record funding and the upheaval of a pandemic –
then we never will.
What I can tell you is that the agenda we are building will amount to a huge transfer of power and funding from the State
to the individual and the family.
So we are clear about the health challenges we all face –
challenges shared by all corners of the United Kingdom.
And I’m happy to speak about them more after this speech.
As I wrap-up, I’ll touch briefly on our wider political challenges.
At a national level, our biggest obstacle to overcome at the next election will be incumbency.
Incumbency, at what is such a difficult global economic and political period.
We can see how Labour in Wales look tired and detached from voter’s priorities –
it’s a lesson for what we must continue to avoid in Westminster.
Because we know that every day we are entrusted with power is a huge privilege.
We won’t be rewarded at the next election for all the things we have done –
whether that’s the rollout of booster vaccines,
or the boost in jobs across the country.
We will be judged on what we will do about the great challenges of our time –
whether that’s finding ways to ease the cost of living,
or confronting the invasion of a European nation by a brutal dictator.
Covid, Recovery and Reform are not just my health priorities,
it could sum up what all of our priorities should be in government.
We know it’s not enough to manage a crisis, or even the aftermath of a crisis
– we need to use this moment to leave a long-term legacy for the country.
And under Boris Johnson’s leadership I’m confident we will.
If we are looking for our guiding principles as we navigate the next two years,
a good place to start is the tree in our logo.
One of my ministerial colleagues was saying yesterday that she thinks we should go back to the torch of liberty.
I delivered many a leaflet with that logo,
and I’m a big believer in freedom,
but I have to say I’m a fan of the tree.
It’s an oak – in your logo I believe it’s a Sessile Oak.
And it brings together all of our values.
It’s a symbol both of strength and growth.
With roots of security and community.
And branches of opportunity and liberty.
Some of us in this room are more driven by naturally conservative impulses.
Conserving, preserving, protecting.
These are the roots.
Others are more driven by classically liberal impulses.
Liberating, reforming, risk-taking.
These are the branches.
This is our Conservative & Unionist coalition.
We saw both sets of instincts in the Brexit debate.
We saw them in how different people reacted to the pandemic.
And now we need both as we recover and renew as one nation.
Strength and growth is what we Conservatives have always stood for.
It’s what the Conservative Government will be focusing on in Westminster.
And it’s what the Conservatives can –
and I believe one day will - bring to Cardiff.