Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he won’t fall back on immigration to solve the U.K.’s truck driver shortage, as he presented supply chain troubles that have left supermarket shelves bare and gas stations dry as a “period of adjustment” in the wake of Brexit and the pandemic.
The government has struggled to show it has a grip of the crisis, with images of long queues for petrol threatening to undermine the ruling Conservative Party — which has long campaigned on the promise of economic competence — as it holds its annual conference starting Sunday in Manchester.
But Johnson’s comments on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show indicate he’s not looking for a quick fix, instead arguing that driver shortages bolster the case for a broader industry overhaul, including better pay and conditions. Brexit offers the chance to move on from a “broken model,” he said.
“The way forward for our country is not to just pull the big lever marked ‘uncontrolled immigration,’” Johnson said, referring to the U.K.’s membership of the European Union.
“When people voted for change in 2016 and when people voted for change again in 2019, they voted for the end of a broken model of the U.K. economy that relied on low wages and low skills and chronic low productivity — and we’re moving away from that,” he said.
In a later clip to broadcasters, the prime minister pushed back on companies’ demand for more foreign workers to be allowed into the U.K. — although he didn’t rule it out.
“Fundamentally it’s up to them to work out the way,” he said. “Those industries are the best solvers of their own supply chains. We will certainly keep all options on the table.”
The government has been stung by criticism that it failed to prepare for supply shortages and disruption, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic but which ministers grudgingly concede is caused in part by the U.K.’s split from its biggest trading partner.
Having led the campaign to leave the bloc, the issue is sensitive for Johnson and during a sometimes testy BBC interview on Sunday, he defended the government’s record. Fuel shortages are “abating,” he said.
He also sought to draw a distinction with his own apparent U-turn on his Brexit promise, to grant temporary visas for 5,000 foreign truckers and 5,500 poultry workers. That measure, he said, was “controlled” immigration.
Johnson also appeared to acknowledge supply chain issues could last for several months and overshadow the holiday season — although he told broadcasters that “this Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas.”
The U.K.’s festive season was effectively cancelled for many households last year after Johnson imposed last-minute pandemic restrictions.
Retailers have already warned that supplies of meat and toys may be limited, and some industries have called for temporary visas to plug labor shortages beyond those already announced.
Writing in The Sun on Sunday newspaper, Labour leader Keir Starmer blamed Johnson for the “chaos” in the supply chain and the shortage of truck drivers, accusing the premier of ignoring repeated warnings from the industry.
Johnson was also asked if he would do anything to alleviate the pressure on pig farmers, who are at risk of having to slaughter and incinerate 150,000 animals because of a shortage of delivery drivers and butchers.
“The great hecatomb of pigs that you describe has not yet taken place, let’s see what happens,” Johnson said, using a classical term for a large public sacrifice. “Actually, what I think needs to happen is again there is a question about the types of jobs that are being done, the pay that is being offered, the levels of automation, the levels of investment.”
The Tory conference comes as many grassroots members worry about how the fuel shortages are annoying voters, and suspicious of the large debt Johnson’s government has accrued while spending its way through the pandemic.
“Margaret Thatcher would not have borrowed more money now, I’ll tell you that much for free,” Johnson said, referring to the former prime minister and heroine of low-tax Tories.
At the same time, the government has come under pressure, including from Tory members of Parliament, to step in to help households amid a surge in cost of living driven by higher energy prices and as the government withdraws pandemic support measures. Johnson has also raised taxes to help fund health and social care in the wake of the pandemic.
Johnson said he doesn’t want to raise taxes but that Britain had suffered a “fiscal meteorite” caused by Covid. “You will never have a more zealous opponent of tax rises than me,” Johnson said. “If I can possibly avoid it I do not want to raise taxes again.”
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