MANCHESTER, England – Prime Minister Boris Johnson shook off Britain’s problems of empty pumps, labor shortages and gaps on shelves as he told Conservatives on Wednesday that Britain would emerge from Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic as a more productive and dynamic nation.
Johnson said at the party’s annual conference that he would end “decades of drift and trembling” and address “long-term structural weaknesses”, particularly a reliance on cheap foreign labor.
“We are now beginning a change of direction that was long overdue in the UK economy,” said Johnson, vowing “not to use immigration as an excuse for lack of investment.”
Relaxed and exuberant in front of a friendly crowd, Johnson failed to notice that much of the supposed drift and tremors were coming from conservative governments. The party has been in power for two-thirds of the past four decades.
Johnson praised the “Brexit freedoms” that Britain’s exit from the European Union brought with it, even if the shortage of truck drivers and other workers creates economic problems. Brexit ended EU citizens’ right to work visa-free in the UK and left growing gaps in the economy.
The delegates to the conference in Manchester, in the north-west of England, gave a standing ovation to a speech that was long on optimism but little on concrete policies and which appeared to be well isolated from the outside world.
The UK has had a tumultuous period since the Conservatives last met in person two years ago. Then Johnson vowed to “carry out” Brexit after years of dispute over Britain’s exit conditions from the EU.
That promise earned Johnson a huge parliamentary majority in December 2019. He led the UK out of the EU last year, ending the UK’s seamless economic integration with a trade bloc of nearly half a billion people. The UK has also been hit by the coronavirus pandemic, recording more than 136,000 deaths, the highest number in Europe after Russia.
The pandemic, which put much of the economy on hold, and Brexit have thrown the UK economy off balance.
Britain’s current autumn of inconvenience is not as bad as the infamous “Winter of Dissatisfaction” of 1978-79, when thousands of striking workers crippled vital services, a crisis that eventually led to the election of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But supply problems are causing the most widespread economic disruption in years.
A shortage of truck drivers, partly due to an exam backlog and partly to an exodus of European workers, has disrupted UK supply chains. That left supermarkets dry with some empty shelves, chicken-free fast food chains, and gas pumps.
This week the government called in the army and got dozens of soldiers driving tank trucks. It also says it will issue up to 5,500 short-term emergency visas for foreign truck drivers.
Other troubled parts of the economy say they are not getting the same quick action. Pig farmers protested outside the Conservative conference, saying a shortage of slaughterhouse butchers would mean thousands of pigs would have to be slaughtered on farms and ended up in landfills.
“It is an utter and utter waste,” said farmer Meryl Ward, who urged the government to hire European butchers to ease the crisis.
Johnson says companies will have to get through it by improving wages and conditions in order to attract British workers to fill the vacant positions.
He said the transition to a “high wage, highly skilled, highly productive” economy “will take time and sometimes it will be difficult, but that change was what people voted for in 2016” when they voted for Brexit.
Some economists say Johnson’s argument that immigration depresses wages is misleading and that his economic plan is incomplete.
“The Prime Minister is right when he says the UK’s economic model is broken, but his lack of action to fix it speaks volumes,” said George Dibb of the Institute for Public Policy Research, a center-left think tank. “Labor market shortages alone will not improve wages and working conditions across the UK economy.”
Many conservatives also fear that winter could be a blow to voters’ wallets due to a new health tax, rising prices, rising energy costs, a global rise in natural gas prices and a cut in social benefits.
As of Wednesday, the government is withdrawing a £ 20 ($ 27) a week welfare increase that has helped more than 4 million families make ends meet during the pandemic.
Danny Sriskandarajah, chief executive officer of Oxfam UK, said many people who depend on performance are low wage workers.
“Removing this safety net, despite warnings from across the political spectrum, will create enormous difficulties for families who are already barely keeping their heads above water,” he said.
Pressure on living standards could make it difficult for Johnson to achieve his primary goal of “leveling” the UK by expanding economic opportunity beyond the south of England, where most of the business and investment is located. That promise helped him win working class votes in areas that have long been center-left Labor strongholds.
It is also pushing the Conservative Party out of its comfort zone as an advocate of small government and low government spending. Johnson’s ambitious and expensive promises range from new railways and roads to reducing UK carbon emissions to reintroducing beavers into its landscape.
Ultimately, voters will judge whether the Conservatives have kept their promises. But for now, with most of the party’s opinion polls giving the party an edge over a demoralized Labor party, the Manchester delegates were as lively as their famously irrepressible leader.
They packed meeting halls and drank warm white wine at sweaty receptions like Britain’s pandemic months of bans, masks and social distancing were a bad dream. The delegates were visibly younger, more diverse and less dominated by affluent residents of southern England than they had been for years.
“You would not have seen that 10 or 15 years ago, when the north was supporting the Conservative Party in droves,” said Max Darby, a delegate who was born in the northern English town of Scunthorpe. “I think Boris has to do something right when people like me are more than happy – even proud – to vote conservatively.”