There was a moment at Boris Johnson speech to Conservative Party loyalists on Wednesday when it took the time to berate companies for praising the private sector for saving lives during the pandemic.
“It was capitalism that made sure that we had a vaccine in less than a year, so the answer is not to attack the creators of wealth, it is to encourage them because they are responsible for the overall increase in the wealth of the country which allows us to… level up everywhere ”, declared the Prime Minister.
While the move was meant to calm business, it fell far short of what was needed after a week in which UK plc felt it was unfairly the scapegoat for growing supply chain issues.
More in keeping with the vibe of the conference, Johnson said the answer to current “stresses and strains” was not to reach the “same old lever of runaway immigration to keep wages low”. It was, he continued, “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, in skills and in the equipment, facilities, machines they have to do their job ”.
Johnson is not the first Tory prime minister to take an interest in business. Ted Heath denounced the “unacceptable face of capitalism”, but his attack in 1973 targeted only one company – Lonrho – rather than the entire business community.
As might be expected, companies did not appreciate being told, indeed, to stop whining and continue to transform Britain into a high-wage, high-productivity economy, and the response came from employers’ organizations and individual sectors. look alike.
Agriculture, where ministers this week said UK agriculture should overcome labor shortages by mimicking Australia’s capital-intensive fruit-picking industry. National Farmers’ Union Vice President Tom Bradshaw said: “Farm businesses have gone out of their way to recruit staff nationally, but even increasingly competitive salaries have had little impact because the labor pool is so limited – instead, they only increase production. costs. A solution to this crisis will require the right people with the right skills and the right training available in rural areas, where many roles are based. “
Retail business, where the counterattack was made more powerful by being led by Lord Simon Wolfson, pro-Brexit Conservative peer, CEO of Next. Noting that there was “genuine panic and despondency” in some industries, Wolfson dismissed the idea that companies needed a shock to wean off cheap labor. “This approach leads to queues at gas stations and unnecessary shooting at pigs,” he said.
Hospitality, where another prominent Leave supporter, Tim Martin, chairman of the JD Wetherspoon pub chain, said it was the “shoemakers” that living standards would rise if draconian immigration controls were introduced. “Brexit decided that immigration policy should be decided by those we elected, not what the policy should be.”
Manufacturing. The trade body representing UK industry, Make UK, said it was already a highly skilled sector with a good track record in training through apprenticeship programs. While the average annual salary in the whole economy was £ 29,000, in manufacturing it was £ 32,000.
Food preparation, where pigs are slaughtered due to a shortage of workers in slaughterhouses. The British Meat Processors Association said the industry was short by 15,000 people, including 9,000 butchers, and there were no meat workers unemployed or on leave. A spokesperson said: “We need skilled butchers in our factories today. The only way for us to do that in the short term is to bring them in from abroad. “
London, where Boris Johnson served two terms as mayor between 2008 and 2016. Richard Burge, managing director of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said: “London businesses certainly want to hear a little less about London being featured almost as a villain in the upgrade story. London is the world city of the United Kingdom. It is a key player in a global economy. We need to do more to ensure that investments in London benefit more across the country. Take London down, and that investment can end up leaving those shores altogether, and it doesn’t benefit anybody here. “
In his speech, Johnson said he has a mandate to demand that companies pay, train and invest more. It would be difficult, “but this is the change people voted for in 2016. And this is the change they voted for strongly again in 2019”.
Tony Danker, chief executive of corporate lobby group CBI, said people need to remember it is party conference week and boards are hopeful that corporate bashing will now be reduced. Johnson’s praise for bankers and entrepreneurs, which made it seem like they were stuck in the speech at the last minute, suggests that Danker may be right.