One of the functions of a party conference is that it forces politicians to think seriously about what their main message is to the public on the key issue of the day, and in its interview with Andrew Marr, Boris Johnson confirmed that the Conservative Party is now investing all its credibility in a particular argument on the economy.
Johnson and his fellow Brexiters have always said Brexit and an end to free movement could raise the wages of native British workers facing competition from ‘Polish plumbers’ and other EU migrants. But that argument was never allowed to eclipse the much broader, bigger (and more fragile) claims about how Brexit was going to benefit the economy as a whole, with minimal disruption.
Now, instead of saying Brexit has little or nothing to do with labor shortages in key industries, resulting in empty shelves and queues at gas stations, Johnson is looking at this argument, saying there is a link, but the payoffs will be worth it. . He tested those lines in PMQs last week, and again this morning. (See 10:57 a.m.)
This is a change with significant consequences. Here are at least five.
1) Johnson now admits that there will be no quick fixes to the supply chain problems facing the economy. When stories started popping up on empty shelves earlier this year, ministers argued it was primarily a Covid issue. When gas stations ran dry, they argued it was due to panic buying (which it was). But now that Johnson has linked the shortage of truck drivers to a larger structural problem, he effectively admits that it won’t be fully resolved anytime soon.
2) Johnson now admits Brexit is a factor in these driver shortages. Just last week, a Minister of the Treasury said the opposite. But Johnson cannot claim Brexit results in a driver shortage that will drive up wages without also admitting that it has led to the same driver shortage which means goods don’t arrive on time.
3) This policy clearly positions the conservatives as a party for the working class. In some ways, Johnson is only responding to a trend that has already happened, as since 2015 the Conservatives have replaced Labor as the party that performs proportionately better among working-class voters than among voters in the United States. the middle class. But higher wages for drivers and others in jobs where wages were kept low by cheap migrant labor from the EU will lead to higher costs for consumers who previously benefited from a low-wage economy. low wages, including many traditional conservative middle-class voters. What will the Telegraph say when it realizes Johnson wants his readers to pay more for Ocado deliveries?
3) Johnson now has an answer to what it really means to level up. In an interview on Friday, he said wage growth would be how leveling is defined. He said:
I gave you the most important metric – not to mention life expectancy, not to mention the consequences of cancer – look at wage growth… Wage growth is now faster for low income people. This has not happened for 10 years or more. That’s what I mean by leveling up.
Johnson’s comment “no matter what the results of cancer” got all the attention, but it was the clearest definition he had yet given of taking it to the next level. (Michel gove, the upgrade secretary, did not receive the memo because in an interview for The Sun that took place the same day, he offered an entirely different definition). An obvious problem with Johnson’s approach is that if wages don’t increase, or if an increase doesn’t look like an increase because it is absorbed by a tax increase or by an increase in inflation, the upgrade will be considered a failure.
4) This new approach seems anti-business. Johnson was relatively cautious in what he said about business in his interview with Marr, but in an interview with ConservativeHome covering this issue Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, was a little more explicit, criticizing employers “benefiting from an influx of labor that could keep wages low” and who are now “resisting” pressure to pay more. In a recent Telegraph column, Fraser nelson says that in private, the Conservatives are much more direct. He said:
“Businesses were told during the referendum that all of this [cheap labour] ends, ”said a minister. “They didn’t invest, so now they’re paying the price.”
And this is what is so interesting: the number of conservatives who talk about business to get their righteous deserts, seeing the current chaos as a painful but necessary war of nerves. “Boris was absolutely right: shit,” said a senior Tory official, referring to a now notorious remark by the prime minister about corporate lobbyists. “They haven’t innovated, they haven’t automated. Now they will have to do it – and pay. Powerful language for the party that was once the party of business.
This could be dangerous for a party traditionally considered to be pro-business. But it’s also another swerve into traditional Labor territory, which could be electorally successful if this more adversarial approach from low-wage employers is what voters want.