AFP — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson rallies his Conservative party faithful on Wednesday, vowing a far-reaching overhaul to wean the UK economy off cheap foreign labour after Brexit.
Shrugging off panic-buying at petrol stations, bare supermarket shelves and retailers’ warnings of a bleak Christmas to come, the Tory leader says the short-term pain is worth it.
“We are dealing with the biggest underlying issues of our economy and society,” he is expected to say in his conference-closing speech, according to excerpts released by the party.
“The problems that no government has had the guts to tackle before.
“Because we are embarking now on the change of direction that has been long overdue in the UK economy,” Johnson will say, vowing no return to the pre-Brexit model of “uncontrolled immigration”.
Instead, British businesses will have to invest in their workers and in technology to push the country “towards a high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy”.
But it will take time to transition. In the meantime, the government has grudgingly agreed to a limited number of short-term visas to lure truckers and poultry workers from Eastern Europe.
For opposition parties and poverty campaigners, Johnson’s commitment to “levelling up” unequal growth also jars with the ending on Wednesday of a weekly boost to benefits for the lowest-paid workers.
As the prime minister put the finishing touches to his speech, protesters nearby condemned “Tory lies” and loudly played the Soviet/Russian national anthem.
Johnson’s attempt to draw a line between his administration and previous governments which lacked “guts” overlooks the fact that the Conservative party has been in power since 2010.
In contrast, finance minister Rishi Sunak — seen by many observers as the heir apparent to 10 Downing Street — is stressing continuity with the Tory tradition of fiscal rectitude.
The government blames the acute labour shortages afflicting the UK economy not on its hardline approach to Brexit but on the coronavirus pandemic.
But the supply crisis risks undermining themes that Johnson is set to emphasise in his conference speech, including levelling up economic growth across the UK and “Global Britain” after the EU divorce.
He is also expected to talk up Britain’s action on climate change and the need for global coordination, ahead of convening the two-week COP26 climate summit in Scotland from October 31.
Touring exhibitors’ stands at the conference on Tuesday, Johnson rode an e-bike, climbed aboard an electric tractor, and played with a puzzle to assemble a zero-carbon energy house.
But at the Tory gathering as a whole, the topic of climate change has been relegated to the backburner.
Sunak said on Monday it would be “immoral” to bequeath pandemic-driven debt to future generations, but made no mention of saving those generations from a burning planet.
The omission was a “damaging sign” ahead of COP26 in Glasgow, commented Rebecca Newsom, head of policy for Greenpeace UK.
“Coughing up more cash for green infrastructure now would save enormous costs later and create millions of new jobs across the UK,” she said.
Neither did Foreign Secretary Liz Truss reference the C-word — climate — in her speech on Sunday, while vowing to support “greener” growth and “clean infrastructure” in developing countries.
In contrast, the B-word — Brexit — has been a recurrent theme for delegates of Johnson’s party, adamant that current problems associated with the EU split will pass.
Brexit minister David Frost admonished the “anti-transport, anti-car” lobby’s “anti-growth ideologies” and “persistent miserabilism”.
Interior Minister Priti Patel used her own conference speech on Tuesday to promise tougher action against climate protesters who have been blockading roads around London.
The prime minister mocked the demonstrators as “irresponsible crusties”.
But Johnson’s COP26 president, Alok Sharma, denied the party was soft-pedalling climate change with less than a month to go before he welcomes delegates from around the world to Glasgow.
“Cabinet colleagues actually understand why it’s vitally important to get this right,” the former business minister told a small audience on the margins of the main conference.