Johnson Deploys Thatcher Slogan and Calls Chaos a Turning Point
Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to play down a supply chain crisis that’s seen fuel shortages and empty store shelves, calling it a “turning point” for the U.K. economy as it emerges from the pandemic.
In interviews on Tuesday, Johnson pushed his relentlessly positive message that the country will benefit from higher pay and investment after having left the European Union. He said a dearth of truck drivers is a global issue and told businesses they need to do more to address supply issues.
“In a famous phrase, there is no alternative,” Johnson told ITV, harking back to a slogan used by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. “We’ve had an environment in the U.K. where we’ve accepted a low wage, low skill, low productivity approach and that needs to change.”
Yet the U.K. is faced with acute challenges that makes the country stand out among its Group of Seven peers. The government has deployed soldiers to drive fuel tankers, the soaring price of natural gas has forced some energy suppliers out of business and inflation is making the Bank of England consider when to start raising interest rates.
Johnson said the U.K. had issued fewer than half of the 300 emergency visas it planned for foreign fuel tanker drivers and dismissed concerns that more than 120,000 pigs face being culled because of a lack of slaughterhouse staff.
“What we said to the road haulage industry was ‘fine, give us the names of the drivers that you want to bring in and we will sort out the visas, you’ve got another 5,000 visas,’” Johnson told BBC Television earlier. “They only produced 127 names so far.”
He later told the BBC said the government can not “magic up” a solution to staff shortages in the meat processing industry.
The government is seeking to shift the responsibility for driver and worker shortages to industry against the backdrop of a spike in demand for fuel and rising living costs. Leaving the EU has meant the U.K. no longer has access to a pool of labor its economy had relied upon for years.
As Johnson toured the makeshift media booths at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, he said shortages of fuel and food aren’t a unique crisis for Britain but were happening across the world as the Covid-19 pandemic eases.
“What you are seeing is the U.K. economy coming back into life, really sort of stretching its legs, starting to move again, and of course there’s been a bit of creaking here and there because we haven’t had such activity in a long time,” Johnson later told LBC radio.
Even Johnson’s Brexit backers are urging the prime minister to move to change his immigration rules. Writing in the Evening Standard on Monday, Next Plc Chief Executive Simon Wolfson suggested a “demand-led” system that “allows the needs of our economy to pull in the talent we really need” with a business visa tax on hiring foreign workers.
Last month, the Bank of England cautioned that rising gas prices are set to push U.K. inflation above 4% by the end of the year and said the supply chain crisis was beginning to hamper Britain’s economic recovery.
Johnson argues the government is overseeing a transition “to address the big, underlying issues that face the U.K.; long-term lack of productivity, long-term lack of investment in energy and infrastructure,” he told LBC. “That will have a big downward pressure on costs and that is the way to tackle inflation.”
In other interviews, he also urged workers to return to their offices, suggesting they face being “gossiped about.”
His lengthy answers eventually frustrated one BBC radio presenter who told him: “Prime minister -- stop talking.” But Johnson was in his element, sticking to the script that Britain was in a new chapter. He also waved away a question over a potential early election: “Nobody is thinking about that right now, quite frankly.”
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