Sometimes, it's important to try and be cheerful in gloomy times. If empty shelves, higher taxes, bigger bills, 120,000 pigs being needlessly shot and burned, the sight of people literally fighting each other over access to fuel get you down, you might want to put on a cheery film or, alternatively, why not tune into the newest bit of feel-good fantasy escapism, the Conservative Party Conference 2021? Critics have hailed it as 'triumphant', 'gleeful', 'untaxing' and 'largely content-free'.
The disconnect between the ecstatic mood and rhetoric emanating from Manchester this week and the concerns of ordinary people was jarring, to say the least. It can be summarised neatly by the title of one particular session, 'Levelling Up - Gin & Tonics provided'. For those made giddy by the cocktails and boosterish-mood, the BBC has produced a handy fact-check of Johnson's speech, covering half-truths and naked fibs on hospitals, trade deals, wages, growth and home-building.
The only real headlines were generated by Johnson's attack on UK businesses and the business community's response. Employing his gift for colourful, if wildly unsuitable analogies, the PM compared businesses to junkies, 'addicted' to cheap overseas labour' and 'mainlining' low-cost migration.
Addicted? Who knew? Here they all were, the great and the good of UK business, small and large, hiring workers to meet demand, without difficulty, at the going rate, subject to a government-mandated minimum wage and EU workers rights regulations and then, all of a sudden, 30 years later, it turns out that they were all in the grip of a fiendish addiction. And it only took another five years of Brexit chaos to diagnose. How to respond to this news? Go 'cold turkey' and suffer supply chain chaos until productivity magically rises? Or take a leaf out of Renton, Spud and Sick Boy's book and make a healthy, informed, democratic decision to get back on drugs as soon as possible. Choose life, or as Johnson prefers to put it, 'F*ck business'.
As far as analogies for rejoining the Single Market goes, 'getting back on drugs' is perhaps not the ideal advertising pitch, but it still manages to be more attractive than any position Labour has taken on the issue.
Johnson's prescription to the narcotic problem of labour supply? That it is the job of industry (and not government) to transform the UK into a high-productivity, high-skill, high-wage economy. And by what method? The removal of access to Europe, the breaking of efficient supply chains and the power of positive thinking. The speech was a triumph of style over substance, returning again to the bizarre Brexit idea that if we believe in something enough, it will somehow happen.
The business community were, for once, swift and forthright in their response to a Brexit-related problem, with the Federation of Small Business spokesperson issuing a fairly savage retort, “The party of business is just walking off the pitch. This might work in the short-term politically, but we need a grown-up government that backs risk-takers — entrepreneurs and the self-employed. Instead all we get from a Conservative conference is a heady mix of tax hikes and blame, and some AI scholarships. Not a single small business person wants uncontrolled migration; it’s a completely false fiction. Inflation is rising, employment costs are up, 50,000 more people will join the unemployed, energy bills are up, fuel’s hard to find. The problems with recruitment, skills and pay are local and under government’s control — this is where it needs to discover its guts and grit.”
Speculation was rife that Johnson himself must have been getting high, or, “I think that approach leads to queues at petrol stations and pigs being unnecessarily shot. I don’t think that is a particularly constructive approach." as one business leader more diplomatically put it.
The chorus of disapproval was joined by the Thatcherite and neo-liberal think tank the Adam Smith Institute labelling the PM's analysis 'economically illiterate' and Brexit cheerleader Tim Martin of Wetherspoons issued the more succinct summary of the idea as 'cobblers'. CEO of Next and leave voter Lord Wolfson complained that raising wages had failed to attract UK-based warehouse staff, and instead proposed a convoluted system where overseas workers come 'according to demand' (how does he think they came in the past?), the Home Office issues special visas and employers pay 7% extra tax for each foreign worker, in order to discourage the practice. The hypocrisy beggars belief. With regards to short labour supply and raising wages sending leave-voting business leaders to the poor house, I sincerely hope we are spared the likes of Martin and Wolfson begging for spare change and promising that they're 'off the hard stuff for good this time'. Perhaps Johnson can send them to rehab, or at least the clinic where they dole out methadone and temporary visas.
In summary, it appears that access to a workforce of 191m appears to be desirable in a crisis, as well as at all other times, for reasons that have always been obvious to everyone.
Whilst the Conservatives attempt to pass our current (and upcoming) troubles as either 'bumps in the road', or necessary pain in the referendum-mandated transformation of our economy, there is scant evidence to back any of this up. In fact, it's not only business leaders who are raising red flags, it's economists, journalists and other experts too (although we know that this government feels the same way about expertise as it does business). This week the National Grid were forced to issue a statement on the likelihood of winter power cuts. The warnings coming are that this is just the tip of the iceberg and that the true consequences of this version of Brexit are yet to come.
In truth, 'Leave the EU' was a solution looking for a problem for thirty years.
It's abundantly clear now, however, that no one will ever admit an error over the decision or the execution of our departure from the EU. At most, if any problem is admitted beyond 'teething troubles', it will be blamed on Europe. Deep down, no one will believe it, but rest assured that we will all be enlisted to be complicit in the fiction.
If there is an antidote to the frustration of living through these difficult times, it may be in taking action. Helping to organise opposition to this government and, importantly, demanding reform of the system that produced it can be a very rewarding exercise. At Renew, we are always looking for volunteers and supporters who are ready to spread the word, online, by sharing our briefings and our social media output and also in person, by helping us during elections or even standing as a candidate locally. On the topic of this week's briefing, Renew's distinct solution is the restoration of frictionless trade and freedom of movement with Europe through the mechanism of joining the Single Market. Expect this to be a major talking point in the coming months.
Have a great week,
James and the Renew Team