A resentful UK plc hits back at Boris Johnson’s conference business-bashing

Analysis: from retailers to farmers, employers have not taken kindly to being told to stop whingeing about the supply crisis

There was a moment in Boris Johnson’s speech to the Conservative party faithful on Wednesday when he took time off from berating business to heap praise on the private sector’s part in saving lives during the pandemic.

“It was capitalism that ensured that we had a vaccine in less than a year, and the answer therefore is not to attack the wealth creators, it is to encourage them because they are responsible for the aggregate increase in the country’s wealth that enables us to … level up everywhere,” the prime minister said.

If the passage was meant to mollify business, it fell far short of what was needed after a week in which UK plc felt it was being unfairly scapegoated for mounting supply-chain problems.

More in keeping with the mood of the conference was when Johnson said the answer to the current “stresses and strains” was not to reach for the “same old lever of uncontrolled immigration to keep wages low”. It was, he went on, “to control immigration to allow people of talent to come to this country, but not to use immigration as an excuse for failure to invest in people, in skills and in the equipment, the facilities, the machinery they need to do their jobs”.

Johnson is not the first Conservative prime minister to have a dig at business. Ted Heath railed against the “unacceptable face of capitalism”, but his attack back in 1973 was on just one company – Lonrho – rather than on the entire business community.

Predictably, business did not take kindly to being told, in effect, to stop whingeing and get on with the job of turning Britain into a high-wage, high-productivity economy, and the push-back came from employers’ organisations and individual sectors alike.

These included:

  • Farming, where ministers have been saying this week that UK agriculture should get round labour shortages by emulating Australia’s capital intensive fruit-picking industry. The National Farmers’ Union’s vice-president, Tom Bradshaw, said: “Farm businesses have done all they can to recruit staff domestically, but even increasingly competitive wages have had little impact because the labour pool is so limited – instead only adding to growing production costs. A solution to this crisis will need the right people with the right skills and training available in rural areas, where many roles are based.”

  • Retailing, where the counterattack was made more potent by being led by the Brexit-supporting Tory peer Lord Simon Wolfson, the chief executive of Next. Noting that there was “a real panic and despondency” in some sectors, Wolfson rejected the idea that business needed a shock to wean it off cheap labour. “That approach leads to queues at petrol stations and pigs being unnecessarily shot,” he said.

  • Hospitality, where another prominent Leave supporter, Tim Martin, chair of the pub chain JD Wetherspoon, said it was “cobblers” that living standards would rise if draconian immigration controls were introduced. “Brexit decided that immigration policy should be decided by those we’ve elected, not what the policy should be.”

  • Manufacturing. The trade body that represents UK industry, Make UK, said it was already a high-skill sector with a good record for training through apprenticeship schemes. While the average annual salary across the economy was £29,000, in manufacturing it was £32,000.

  • Food processing, where pigs are being culled because of a shortage of abattoir workers. The British Meat Processors Association said the industry was short of 15,000 people, including 9,000 butchers, and that there were no unemployed or furloughed meat workers. A spokesperson said: “We need skilled butchers in our plants today. They only way we can possibly do that in the short term is to bring them in from overseas.”

  • London, where Boris Johnson served two terms as mayor between 2008 and 2016. Richard Burge, chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said: “London’s businesses certainly wish to hear a little less of London being presented almost as a villain in the levelling-up narrative. London is the UK’s world city. It is a key player in a global economy. We need to further ensure that investment into London brings further benefit across this country. Do London down, and that investment may end up leaving these shores altogether, and that benefits no one here.”

In his speech, Johnson said he had a mandate for his demand that business needs to pay, train and invest more. It would be difficult, “but that was the change that people voted for in 2016. And that was the change they voted for again powerfully in 2019”.

Tony Danker, the director-general of the business lobby group the CBI, said people needed to remember that it was party conference week and that boardrooms hoped the business bashing will now be reduced. Johnson’s praise for bankers and entrepreneurs, which gave the impression of being squeezed into the speech at the last minute, suggests Danker may be right.

Contributor

Larry Elliott Economics editor

The GuardianTramp

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