Most prime ministers would be worried about supply chain shortages. But as became increasingly clear at the Tory party conference in Manchester, Boris Johnson has instead spotted a political opportunity. He denies there is a crisis and claims that the recent ‘stresses and strains’ amount to nothing more than the economy reawakening after lockdown. As for the worker shortages, he believes they are proof of a ‘robust economy’ which will result in people being paid more.
This has been the Tories’ theme in Manchester: set up a dividing line between a government that wants workers to be paid more and those who want to ‘reach for the same old lever of uncontrolled immigration to keep wages low’. The Tories are desperate to accuse Labour of drifting back towards free movement. They will seize on every example of Keir Starmer calling for a relaxation of immigration rules.
It is not difficult to see why Johnson is attracted to this approach. During the referendum campaign, he argued that controlling migration would lead to higher wages — a claim that various economists dismissed as nonsense. If he can now say he was right, and that Brexit and the end of free movement has boosted wages for British workers, he will have a clear appeal to voters who backed him during the 2016 referendum and the 2019 general election.
This approach, however, is not without risk. In Manchester, it was clear that even members of Johnson’s inner circle are concerned. One minister, who agrees that Britain’s economy should move away from relying on foreign workers, thinks it is a mistake to squeeze this transition (and the accompanying pain) into the months before Christmas. He frets that ‘the greatest danger to Brexit’ comes from transitioning too quickly, leading to people placing the blame for empty shelves on our exit from the EU.