British prime minister Boris Johnson last night shrugged off the problems of empty petrol pumps, worker shortages and gaps on store shelves as he promised fellow Tories the UK would emerge from Brexit and the pandemic as a more productive and dynamic nation.
r Johnson told the Conservative Party’s annual conference that he’d end “decades of drift and dither” and tackle “long-term structural weaknesses”, especially a reliance on low-cost labour from abroad.
“We’re embarking now on a change of direction that has been long overdue in the UK economy,” Mr Johnson said, vowing “not to use immigration as an excuse for the failure to invest”.
Some economists say Mr Johnson’s argument that immigration pushes down wages is misleading, and that his economic plan is incomplete.
“The prime minister is right to say that the UK’s economic model is broken, but his lack of policies to remedy this speaks volumes,” said George Dibb of the Institute for Public Policy Research, a centre-left think tank.
“Labour market shortages alone won’t lift wages and working conditions across the UK economy.”
Relaxed and ebullient in front of a friendly crowd, Mr Johnson did not note that much of the alleged drift and dither came under Conservative governments. The party has been in power for two-thirds of the past four decades.
Mr Johnson hailed the “Brexit freedoms” brought by Britain’s exit from the EU, even as shortages of truck drivers and other workers cause economic hiccups. Brexit ended the right of EU citizens to work visa-free in Britain and has left growing gaps in the economy.
Delegates at the conference in Manchester gave a standing ovation to a speech that was long on optimism but short on concrete policies, and seemed well insulated from the world outside.
Britain has been through a turbulent time since the Conservatives last met in person two years ago. Then, Mr Johnson vowed to “get Brexit done” after years of wrangling over Britain’s exit terms.
That promise won Mr Johnson a huge parliamentary majority in December 2019. He led Britain out of the EU last year, ending the UK’s seamless economic integration with a trading bloc of almost half a billion people. Britain also has been hammered by the coronavirus pandemic, registering more than 137,000 deaths, Europe’s highest toll after Russia.
The pandemic, which put much of the economy on ice, and Brexit have combined to throw the UK economy out of sync.
A truck-driver shortage, due partly to a testing backlog and partly to an exodus of EU workers, has choked British supply chains. That has left supermarkets with some empty shelves, fast-food chains without chicken and petrol stations dry.
Mr Johnson said businesses will have to tough it out by improving pay and conditions to get British workers to fill the empty jobs.
He said the move to a “high-wage, high-skilled, high-productivity” economy “will take time, and sometimes it will be difficult, but that is the change people voted for in 2016” when they opted for Brexit.
Many Tories are worried winter could bring a hit on voters’ wallets due to a new health care tax, rising prices, soaring energy costs from a global surge in natural gas prices and a cut to welfare benefits.
A squeeze on living standards could make it harder for Johnson to meet his key goal of “levelling up” the UK by spreading economic opportunity beyond the south of England, where most business and investment is centred.