One of the functions of a party conference is that it forces politicians to think hard about what their core message to the public is on key issue of the day, and in his interview with Andrew Marr, Boris Johnson confirmed that the Conservative party is now investing all its credibility in a particular argument about the economy.
Johnson, and his fellow Brexiters, always said that Brexit, and the end of free movement, might drive up wages for native British workers facing competition from “Polish plumbers” and other EU migrants. But this argument was never allowed to overshadow the much broader, bigger (and more flimsy) claims about how Brexit was going to benefit the economy overall, with minimal disruption.
Now, instead of saying that Brexit has little or nothing to do with labour shortages in key industries, leading to empty shelves and queues at petrol station, Johnson is leaning into this argument, saying there is a link, but the gains will be worth it. He trialled these lines at PMQs last week, and again this morning. (See 10.57am.)
This is a shift with important consequences. Here are at least five.
1) Johnson is now conceding that there will be no quick fix to the supply chain problems facing the economy. When stories started appearing about empty shelves earlier this year, ministers argued that this was primarily a Covid issue. When petrol stations ran dry, they argued that this was prompted by panic buying (which it was). But now that Johnson has linked the HGV driver shortage to a wider, structural problem, he is effectively admitting that it won’t be fully solved any time soon.
2) Johnson is now admitting that Brexit is a factor in these driver shortages. Only last week a Treasury minister was claiming the opposite. But Johnson cannot claim that Brexit is leading to a driver shortage that will push up wages without also accepting that it has led to the same driver shortage that means goods aren’t arriving on time.
3) This policy positions the Conservatives clearly as a party for the working class. In some respects Johnson is just responding to a trend that has already happened, because since 2015 the Tories have replaced Labour as the party that does proportionately better among working-class voters than among middle-class voters. But higher pay for drivers and others doing jobs where wages were held down by cheap, EU migrant labour will mean higher costs for the consumers who used to benefit from a low-wage economy, including many traditional, middle-class Tory voters. What is the Telegraph going to say when it realises that Johnson wants its readers to pay more for Ocado deliveries?
3) Johnson now has an answer to what levelling up actually means. In an interview on Friday he said wage growth would be how levelling up was defined. He said:
I’ve given you the most important metric – never mind life expectancy, never mind cancer outcomes – look at wage growth … Wage growth is now being experienced faster by those on lower incomes. It hasn’t happened for 10 years or more. That is what I mean by levelling up.
Johnson’s “never mind cancer outcomes” comment attracted all the attention, but it was the clearest definition he has yet given of levelling up. (Michael Gove, the levelling up secretary, did not get the memo, because in an interview for the Sun taking place the same day, he offered a quite different definition). One obvious problem with Johnson’s approach is that if wages do not rise, or if an increase does not feel like an increase because it gets eaten up by a tax rise, or by rising inflation, levelling up will feel like a failure.
4) This new approach sounds anti-business. Johnson was relatively guarded in what he said about businesses in his Marr interview, but in an interview with ConservativeHome covering this issue Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, was a bit more explicit, criticising employers “benefiting from an influx of labour that could keep wages low” who are now “resisting” pressure to pay more. In a recent Telegraph column, Fraser Nelson said that in private Tories are a lot more blunt. He said:
“Business was served notice in the referendum that all this [cheap labour] is ending,” says one minister. “They didn’t invest, so now they’re paying the price.”
And this is what’s so interesting: the number of Tories talking about business getting its just deserts, seeing the current chaos as a painful but necessary war of nerves. “Boris was quite right: f— business,” one senior Tory says, referring to a now-notorious remark the prime minister made about corporate lobbyists. “They haven’t innovated, haven’t automated. Now they’ll have to – and pay up.” Striking language for the party that was, once, the party of business.
This could be dangerous for a party traditionally seen as pro-business. But it is also yet another lurch into traditional Labour territory, which could be electorally fruitful if this more antagonistic approach to low-wage employers is what voters want.