By Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan
MANCHESTER, England -Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed to radically re-shape Britain on Wednesday, exhorting his Conservative Party faithful to help the government press on with tackling regional inequality by ending “long term structural weaknesses” in the economy.
In a speech to end his party’s annual conference, Johnson, renowned for his overarching optimism in all things, concentrated on what he called the Conservatives’ successes hoping to draw a line under a series of crises buffeting Britain.
After a week when Johnson has been forced to defend his government against complaints over fuel shortages, fears for Christmas food supplies and farmers having to destroy their produce, the prime minister wants to reset his agenda.
Firing up his party by invoking former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, trumpeting the government’s vaccine roll out and taking aim at the main opposition Labour Party, Johnson presented Britain’s future after COVID-19 and Brexit as a time for change.
“The answer to the present stresses and strains, which are mainly a function of growth and economic revival, is not to reach for that same old lever of uncontrolled immigration to keep wages low,” he told an appreciative crowd.
“The answer is 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 and machinery … they need to do their jobs.”
“To deliver that change we will get on with our job of uniting and levelling up across the UK – the greatest project that any government can embark on.”
Answering critics who have called for more measures to bring in foreign workers to plug gaps in the haulage and agriculture industries, Johnson again called on businesses to do more to lift wages and attract more workers.
Many businesses were less than impressed. One Conservative member of the upper house of parliament, Simon Wolfson, a Brexit supporter and head of retailer Next, said the war of words was unhelpful.
“Rather than trying to solve this problem with throwing brick bats at each other, we sit down together, work through and design a system that delivers the best of both worlds,” he told BBC radio, saying there was “real panic and despondency” in the hospitality and care homes sectors.
The chief executive of one company in the top 150 of Britain’s FTSE listed companies said Britain was going through a “painful readjustment” post-Brexit which had been delayed by the COVID pandemic: “The government’s relationship or lack of relationship with business is a symptom of this.”
Johnson will also have to work hard to win over some at the conference, who fear the Conservatives are no longer conservative after breaking with a commitment to lower taxes and, as they see it, abandoning the party’s more affluent southern English supporters for those in the north.
Johnson is raising taxes to help tackle crisies in health and social care and has made large spending commitments on everything from trains to schools to high streets as part of his “levelling up” agenda to tackle regional inequality.
“To level up you need to give people the options and the skills,” he said, adding he would “plug all the gaps in infrastructure that have been holding people back”.