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Tory conference: Boris Johnson's party buffeted by Brexit and COVID-19 — but ahead in the polls

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel try baking during a visit to HideOut Youth Zone, in Manchester, England, Sunday Oct. 3, 2021.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel try baking during a visit to HideOut Youth Zone, in Manchester, England, Sunday Oct. 3, 2021. Copyright Stefan Rousseau/Pool via AP
Copyright Stefan Rousseau/Pool via AP
By Alasdair Sandford
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Despite the impact of Brexit and the pandemic, opinion surveys suggest the UK's ruling Conservatives are polling ahead of the Labour opposition as the party meets in Manchester.


The UK's ruling Conservative Party has kicked off its annual conference in Manchester with consumers and businesses buffeted by the impact from Brexit, the pandemic, a creaking welfare system, soaring prices, and labour shortages that have seen fuel pumps run dry and supermarket shelves laid bare.

Yet nearly two years on from his emphatic general election victory, and despite fierce attacks over his record and personality, Boris Johnson and his party sit comfortably ahead in opinion polls.

On Monday the army begins helping to distribute fuel and the government has extended a limited visa scheme for more overseas labour to help in the short term.

But the prime minister arrived in the northern English city on Sunday rejecting calls from industry to open the doors to more foreign workers. He said he was ready to take “bold decisions” to rebuild the economy after the coronavirus pandemic.

A dearth of lorry drivers in particular is behind many of the current supply problems. Thousands of Europeans who used to work in the British haulage industry -- and in other sectors too, from farming to food processing, hospitality to care homes -- have returned to the continent, leaving acute gaps in the labour market.

In Manchester, Johnson argued that Britain’s economy is simply going through a post-Brexit “period of adjustment” after leaving the European Union, and said supply chain problems and shortages in food and fuel could continue until Christmas.

The truck driver shortage was a “chronic problem” associated with an over-reliance on migrant workers who were willing to work for low wages and poor conditions, he said.

The UK's post-Brexit divisions have resurfaced amid the crises, with some blaming the government's new highly restrictive immigration policy, while others point to the pandemic and other factors such as an ageing workforce.

The well-documented problems faced by British exporters to the EU are the direct result of new red tape resulting from the hard Brexit negotiated by Johnson, with Britain now outside the bloc's single market and customs union.

Trade with the EU has plummeted since the new rules kicked in, figures showing no post-lockdown bounce unlike in some sectors regarding exports to non-EU countries.

The prime minister was also directly responsible for the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland that are now so bitterly contested.

Almost overnight, months of deadlock over the island of Ireland's border issue -- that plagued and ultimately brought down Theresa May's government -- were overcome.

Johnson's breakthrough deal helped him secure and win the December 2019 election, and to "get Brexit done" in that the UK finally left the EU the following January.

For some time, the prime minister did not accept that the new Northern Ireland Protocol would mean an Irish Sea border with Britain, and an internal UK barrier so sensitive with unionists.

Likewise, the subsequent trade deal with the EU brought new barriers for businesses and people in their relations with the continent. And Johnson has admitted he has failed to make headway towards a lucrative trade deal with the United States, hailed by campaigners as one of the prizes of Brexit.


The post-Brexit fallout has brought renewed tensions with Scotland, where a majority had voted to remain in the EU, and where calls for a new independence referendum have grown louder.

But to many people, especially in much of England, Boris Johnson cuts a sympathetic figure who echoes their sentiments, his transgressions forgiven.

In contrast, opposition Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has struggled to connect with the public, despite moving to pull his party from the left -- which brought a resounding defeat under Jeremy Corbyn -- towards the political centre.

Starmer has recently described Johnson as "trivial", but some commentators believe he has his work cut out if he is going to land meaningful punches on the prime minister.


"A lot of people in the Labour look at Boris Johnson and think 'this man is a clown, this is a man of no convictions, this is a serial liar, and all we have to do is keep telling people that, and at some point the message will get through and they'll notice'," political historian Robert Saunders told a think-tank "UK in a Changing Europe" podcast.

"I think there is quite a lot of evidence that the public know that Boris Johnson has a somewhat dodgy personal history, they know that he is economical with the truth, and they don't mind."

The prime minister is also much derided abroad -- yet his reported tensions with President Biden over Northern Ireland did not prevent him from making political capital out of the recently-struck AUKUS defence deal.

At home, the right-wing Johnson has twice been elected mayor of London in a centre-left city, and arguably helped swing the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum by joining and then championing the "Leave" cause.


At the last election his leadership secured the biggest Conservative victory since the 1980s, notably bringing many traditional "Red Wall" Labour seats in the north of England into the Tory fold.

Boris Johnson and the country may be in for a hard winter, but the prime minister's many critics may be foolish to think that he will be damaged politically in equal proportion.

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