LONDON – Brits are lining up for gasoline, looking at empty grocery store shelves, paying higher taxes and worrying about soaring prices as a cold winter approaches.
But visiting the Conservative Party conference in Manchester last week was like stepping into a sort of happy valley, where cabinet ministers danced, sang karaoke and emptied flutes of champagne – Pol Roger, Winston Churchill’s favorite brand , of course.
No one has captured the bonhomie better than Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who told a large crowd of party loyalists: “You all represent the most jiving, hip, happening and generally funkapolitan party in the world.”
The cognitive dissonance has spread beyond the atmosphere of Mardi Gras. In his optimistic opening speech, Mr Johnson called the multiple ills plaguing Britain ‘a function of economic growth and recovery’ – difficult but necessary post-Brexit adjustments on the way to a future more prosperous.
This was at least his third explanation for food and fuel shortages, which continued in some areas after three weeks. Initially, he denied that there was a crisis. Then he said the shortages were not about Brexit – contradicting analysts, union leaders, food producers and business owners – but were hitting all Western countries as they emerged from the pandemic. And finally, he cited stress as proof that Brexit was doing its job in shaking up the economy.
“This is the pinnacle of post-hoc rationalization – the idea that this is a well thought out plan, that we intended to do it from the start,” said Jill Rutter, senior researcher in the United Kingdom in a changing Europe, a London think tank.
Few politicians have the indomitable glee or ideological flexibility of Mr Johnson, so it was no surprise that he tried to put the best face to Britain’s bad news streak. He remains fully in charge of the Conservative Party, which has a majority of 80 seats in Parliament, and well ahead of the opposition Labor Party leader, Keir Starmer, in the opinion polls.
Still, political analysts and economists have said there were risks in the Panglossian tone he adopted in Manchester. With inflation set to hold relatively high and the government admitting that shortages could continue until Christmas, voters could quickly turn sour against Mr Johnson. Then, next year, tax hikes come, after breaking his promise not to raise them last month.
Looking back, some said, the conference could be seen as a highlight for the prime minister.
“A few days of disrupted fuel supplies are driving the government insane,” said Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London. “Much bigger fuel bills are a lot bigger deal. “
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, said Mr Johnson could look like James Callaghan, the Labor Prime Minister who was toppled in 1979 after a winter of fuel shortages and soaring inflation, when ‘he didn’t seem alarmed enough on the accumulation of problems.
When Mr Johnson leapt into the conference auditorium last week, stopping to kiss his wife, Carrie, he looked anything but alarmed. Between jokes and taunts at the opposition, he presented a plan for a post-Brexit economy which he said would offer high wages to skilled British workers, rather than lower-cost immigrants from the Union European Union, and put the burden on companies to pay the bill.
Previous companies and governments “have used the same old leverage of uncontrolled immigration to keep wages low,” Mr Johnson said. “The answer is to control immigration, to allow talented people to come to this country, but not to use immigration as an excuse not to invest in people, skills and equipment, facilities, the machines they need to do their jobs.
This model is a far cry from Singapore-on-Thames, the slogan once used by intellectual Brexit writers to describe an open, lightly regulated, business-friendly hub they said Britain would become once it get rid of labor laws and other obstacles. from Brussels. No one is talking about doing away with labor laws just yet (indeed Mr Johnson may soon decide to raise the UK minimum wage).
Contradictions between protectionists and liberals have run through the Brexit movement from the start. “I describe him as Little England against Global Britain,” said Mr Portes, noting that Mr Johnson, due to his lack of steadfast convictions, was in a good position to keep this coalition together.
Since Mr Johnson’s landslide election victory in 2019, however, the gravity of the Conservative Party has turned decisively towards protectionism and anti-immigration policies. This is the message that helped the Tories lure disillusioned former Labor voters in the industrial Midlands and northern England.
Many of those voters want the jobs that would come with the revival of UK heavy industry, not better opportunities for hedge fund managers in London. Conservative politicians who once championed Singapore’s model on the Thames are now playing it down.
Mr Johnson adopted a message blaming business which, while at odds with his party’s traditional tenets, is popular with his new base. He singled out the trucking industry, saying its inability to invest in better truck stops – “with basic facilities where you don’t have to urinate in the bushes,” he said – was the one of the reasons why young people did not aspire to become Drivers.
“It’s all of a piece with its move towards a much more populist style,” Mr. Bale said. “Johnson is pushing the right buttons, as far as these people are concerned.”
His harsh business language has blurred the traditional lines of British politics. Voters were treated to the curious spectacle of Mr Starmer on Friday attacking Mr Johnson for his attacks on business and portraying the Labor Party as Britain’s best partner for business.
For Mr Johnson, critics said, the biggest risk is lack of credibility. His initial claim that food and fuel shortages were not caused by Brexit did not seem convincing, given that his own government predicted rising prices and shortages of both in a 2019 disruption report. potential in the event of a “no-deal Brexit”, in which Britain would leave the European Union without a trade deal.
The report, known as Operation Yellowhammer, sets out “reasonable worst-case planning assumptions,” among which “certain types of fresh food supply will decline” and that “customer behavior could lead to shortages. local ‘fuel. Although Britain negotiated a rudimentary trade deal with Brussels, its effect was similar to that of a no-deal.
While it is true that Mr Johnson is indisputably setting his party’s agenda, it is not clear that internal debates over the shape of a post-Brexit future are fully settled. Rishi Sunak, the popular Chancellor of the Exchequer, spoke at the conference about his years in California and how he viewed Silicon Valley as a role model for Britain.
“I’m not sure the truck driver shortage is part of that vision,” said Ms. Rutter, the researcher.