MANCHESTER, England — Empty gas pumps, worker shortages, gaps on store shelves. It’s an autumn of inconvenience in Britain, if not quite a winter of discontent.
But this week, Boris Johnson is in his element. The prime minister has shut his problems outside during the Conservative Party’s annual conference, speaking to supportive crowds, posing for selfies and clowning around on a bicycle inside a vast convention center in Manchester.
“There is no alternative,” Johnson said Tuesday, adopting a phrase used by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, an iconic figure for Conservatives. “The U.K. has got to (become) — and we can do much, much better by becoming — a higher-wage, higher-productivity economy.”
Britain has been through a turbulent time since the party last met in person two years ago. Then, Johnson vowed to “get Brexit done” and take the U.K. out of the European Union after years of wrangling over exit terms.
That promise won Johnson a huge parliamentary majority in December 2019. He led Britain out of the EU last year, ending the U.K.’s seamless economic integration with a trading bloc of almost half a billion people. Britain also has been hammered by a coronavirus pandemic that has left more than 136,000 people in the U.K. dead, Europe’s highest toll after Russia.
The pandemic, which put much of the economy on ice, and Brexit, which made it harder for EU citizens to work in the U.K., combined to throw the economy out of sync.
While not as dire as Britain’s infamous “Winter of Discontent” in 1978-79, when thousands of striking workers crippled essential services and led to Thatcher’s election, the country has seen the most widespread economic disruption in years.
A shortage of truck drivers, due partly to a testing backlog and partly to an exodus of European workers, has snarled British supply chains. That has left supermarkets with some empty shelves, fast-food chains without chicken and gas pumps out of fuel.
After more than a week of fuel-supply problems, the government called in the army this week, getting scores of soldiers to drive tanker trucks. It also says it will issue up to 5,500 short-term visas for foreign truckers to come to the U.K.
Other struggling parts of the economy say they aren’t getting the same quick action. Pig farmers protested outside the Conservative conference, saying a shortage of abattoir butchers means thousands of pigs may have to be slaughtered on farms, ending up in landfills rather than the food chain.
Meryl Ward, a pig farmer from central England, said it was “complete madness” that the government was refusing to issue visas to a small number of skilled European butchers to ease the crisis.
“It’s a complete and utter waste,” she said.
Johnson says businesses will have to tough it out by raising wages, improving pay and conditions to get British workers to fill the empty jobs. He said that too many sectors of the British economy relied on Eastern European workers willing to do tough jobs for low pay, and vowed the U.K. would not go back “to the old, failed model where you mainline low-wage, low-skilled labor.”
While Johnson argues that EU membership pushed down U.K. wages — a claim many economists contest — he has downplayed Brexit’s role in the country’s current economic woes, pointing out that the United States and China also have shortages of truck drivers. Critics say those countries don’t also have the gaps on supermarket shelves that Britain is experiencing.
Johnson said supply-chain problems are just the “stresses and strains you’d expect from a giant waking up,” adding that Britain is rebounding fast after suffering the sharpest contraction of any major economy in the pandemic. Unemployment is under 5%, though the ending this month of a program that paid the wages of millions of furloughed workers could drive that number up.
Many Conservatives are worried the winter could bring a hit on voters’ pocketbooks due to rising fuel costs from a global surge in natural gas prices and a cut to welfare benefits for millions that kicks in this week.
That could make it harder for Johnson to meet his key goal of “leveling up” the U.K. by spreading economic opportunity beyond the south of England, where most business and investment is centered. That promise helped him win working-class votes in areas that long were strongholds of the center-left Labour Party.
“The Conservative Party has changed,” said Michael Gove, the government’s grandly titled Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.
He said the party that slashed public spending for a decade after 2010 under Johnson’s predecessors had rejected an economic model “in which the fruits of growth were not equally shared and the talents of all were not equally valued.”
One day, voters will judge whether the Conservatives have delivered on their promises. But for now, with most opinion polls giving the party a lead over a demoralized Labour Party, delegates in Manchester were as buoyant as their famously irrepressible leader.
They packed meeting halls and sipped warm white wine at sweaty receptions, as if Britain’s pandemic-plagued months of lockdowns, masks and social distancing were a bad dream.
The Johnson-led Conservative Party was visibly younger, more diverse and less dominated by affluent residents of southern England than it had been for years.
“You wouldn’t have seen this even 10, 15 years ago, the north turning out in such droves to support the Conservative Party,” said Max Darby, a delegate who was born in the northern England town of Scunthorpe. “I think Boris has to be doing something right if people like me are more than happy — in fact proud — to vote Conservative.”