Britain's crisis-hit PM faces tricky party conference

AFP , Friday 1 Oct 2021

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's talent for political escapology will be tested in the coming days as his Conservative party holds its annual conference in the grip of national turmoil induced by Covid-19 and Brexit

Boris Johnson
Britain s Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to welcome Slovenia s Prime Minister Janez Jansa to 10 Downing Street in central London on September 30, 2021, ahead of their meeting AFP

Panic-buying has emptied fuel pumps, and retailers are warning of a bleak Christmas unless the government restores the flow of labour from Europe that it shut down when Britain quit the EU.

The crisis risks undermining themes that Johnson wants to tout at the conference, including "levelling up" economic growth, "Global Britain" after Brexit, and "anti-woke" culture wars.

He is also set to talk up Britain's action on climate change and the need for global coordination, ahead of hosting the COP26 climate summit in Scotland next month.

The coronavirus pandemic, while hitting Britain disproportionately hard, had masked economic dislocation caused by the EU divorce, and Johnson has weathered the past 18 months of lockdowns well in the polls.

But opposition Labour leader Keir Starmer is catching up, after using his own party conference this week to neuter his party's left wing and attack Johnson as being a Brexit-obsessed "trickster".

Veteran Conservative watcher Tim Bale said the return of in-person party conferences this year coincided with "a return to a politics dominated by economics", rather than Johnson's preference for bashing Labour over identity politics involving race, history and gender.

"He does seem to be able to extract himself from scrapes on a regular basis," said Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.

"But I think on this one, when it comes to people's household bills and shortages in the shops, it's rather harder to portray that things are going to be fine."

Starmer's conference speech met with approval from business leaders, who want to hear promises of bolder action from Johnson, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and other senior Conservatives in Manchester this week.

The conference opens on Sunday with a keynote address from new Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who in her previous cabinet job went on a global hunt for post-Brexit trade deals. One with the US remains elusive.

- 'Come up with the goods' -

The Confederation of British Industry said the government needed to go beyond its offer of short-term visas for EU truckers, demanding Johnson form a top-level crisis team to confront labour and skills shortages.

"This is now a major threat to our recovery, and the government needs to step up its response to a new level of both speed and boldness," argued CBI director-general Tony Danker.

Ministers deny that their hard line on Brexit is to blame for widespread shortages of workers in critical sectors, including an estimated shortfall of 100,000 lorry drivers, pointing to the pandemic instead.

Johnson took days to address the crisis after jittery drivers started besieging petrol stations last week, and needs to use his speech on Wednesday to show he understands public concerns while also staying on top of longer-term policy goals.

It is a tricky balance for a politician and former journalist who, down the years, has wowed the Tory faithful with barnstorming performances that were part politics, part comedy act.

When he was running to succeed Theresa May as Conservative leader in 2019, Johnson brandished a plastic-wrapped smoked kipper to decry EU regulations.

EU officials said the packaging requirement had been imposed in London, not Brussels.

Beyond the theatrics, according to Bale, the prime minister needs to frame a coherent programme of government after reshuffling his cabinet last month.

"There's a recognition that after Brexit, the government needs a rationale and that it is delivering on some of the benefits it promised," he said.

"It's acutely aware that especially for former Labour voters, their relationship with the Conservative party is pretty transactional. The party has to come up with the goods.

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