DON’T fret, dear friends, all will come good in the end.
Boris Johnson’s boosterish message of reassurance to the country this week appeared to buoy up much of the Tory family, “electrified” by his vision of levelling up Britain. “Classic Boris,” purred one minister.
But some family members were not so impressed. The Adam Smith Institute, the free market think-tank, branded the PM’s conference speech “bombastic…vacuous and economically illiterate”.
Johnson told the country that it was now entering a new Brexit transition period. But unlike the last one, aimed at minimising economic turbulence as the UK left the EU single market and which lasted 11 months, the new one, ushering in the emergence of a post-Brexit golden age of Global Britain, has economic turbulence built in and is indeterminate.
At the first in-person Tory get-together for two years, the PM was as optimistic as ever, invoking Margaret Thatcher by claiming there was “no alternative” to ending what Dominic Raab, his downgraded deputy, called Britain’s “addiction” to cheap, foreign labour.
Boris decried this “long-term structural weakness” in the British economy and painted a vision of a “high-wage, high-skilled, high-productivity, and, yes, thereby a low-tax economy”.
However, he acknowledged the cold turkey the country was about to endure would take time and involve difficult moments before we reached our post-addiction sanctuary. This after all, Johnson insisted, was what people voted for in 2016.
During media interviews Boris calmly declared he was “not worried” about the consequent jobs gap nor indeed about rising prices, confidently asserting supply chains would “rapidly” sort themselves out; “supply would match demand” helped along by Britain’s “world leading” logistics industry.
It seemed amid all the conference slogans like Build Back Better and Getting On With the Job, one was missing: Nothing To Do with Me, Guv.
The PM argued the chronic lack of lorry drivers which had left supermarket shelves empty and petrol stations closed was not a matter for him; crikey, his government could not be “stepping in to patch and mend every bit of our supply chains”.
Not surprisingly, Boris’s suggestion business was to blame for chronically over-relying on cheap foreign labour and not investing in skills raised the hackles of some of our captains of industry.
Pro-Brexit Richard Walker, the boss of Iceland, complained the PM was treating business like a “bogeyman,” stressing how it was “not an endless sponge that can keep absorbing costs in one go”.
Lord Wolfson, the Brexiteer boss of Next, denounced as misguided the Conservative Government’s belief UK plc needed a shock to jolt it out of its comfortable reliance on cheap immigrant labour.
“That approach,” claimed the Tory peer, “leads to queues at petrol stations and pigs being unnecessarily shot. I don’t think that is a particularly constructive approach.”
His suggestion to quickly solve the staff shortages crisis was to introduce a visa tax and pay foreign workers the same as UK ones; that way, Lord Wolfson argued, the skills gap would be filled without undercutting British workers.
Nadhim Zahawi, England’s Education Secretary, was dispatched to the airwaves to calm fevered brows and insist the UK Government was not “on a warpath with business”.
Trade unions were also unhappy, denouncing as “hypocrisy in the extreme” for the PM to talk about a high-wage economy when public sector employees had had their pay frozen, were facing tax hikes, higher energy and council tax bills and many people would suffer hardship thanks to the removal of the £1,000-a-year Universal Credit uplift.
Remarkably, there are some who do not share Boris’s Panglossian outlook; indeed, some opponents regard it as typical Tory callous indifference, which they suggested was nowhere better displayed than at a fringe karaoke night when Therese Coffey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, just hours before she removed the benefit uplift, decided to belt out the song, I’ve had the Time of My Life.
The CBI admitted Boris had set out a “compelling vision” of a highly skilled and highly paid workforce but warned: “Ambition on wages without action on investment and productivity is ultimately just a pathway for higher prices.”
And this is now the big worry, that Britain could be hit by a tidal wave of rising inflation; indeed, some fear a return of the dreaded 1970s-style stagflation, a mix of rising prices and stagnant growth.
As Boris was setting out his “radical and optimistic” Tory agenda gas prices were unhelpfully jumping by 15 per cent to an all-time high. Markets believe there is a one-in-four chance the Bank of England could increase interest rates not next year but next month.
Experts warned household energy bills could leap by a third, an average of £420, to almost £1,700 a year from April if wholesale gas prices do not abate in the coming months.
If you thought the prospect of a turkeyless Christmas was bad enough, industry chiefs are now warning the energy crisis could mean a run on – toilet rolls.
Better news came from the National Grid. While it admitted the risk of power shortages this winter would be the highest in five years and there could be “significant price spikes”, the lights should stay on. Thank goodness for that.
The misguided approach of “Crisis? What Crisis?” when things are deteriorating did for Jim Callaghan and his Labour Government in 1979. Johnson’s blithe approach could end the same way.
As Boris seeks to guide us through the cold turkey transition towards those post-Brexit sunlit uplands, the key question is: will he have enough time to get there before the next election? Or will he, as Keir Starmer claims, prove to be just a Tory trickster? The clock is ticking.
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