Johnson hit by business backlash over investment
Addressing the faithful: Boris Johnson wants to ‘level up’
Boris Johnson faced a backlash from business after accusing company leaders of using immigration to hide behind a lack of investment.
In his address to the final day of the Conservative party conference, the Prime Minister invoked the spirit of care workers and the drive of entrepreneurs to underpin his aim to narrow the health and wealth gaps in Britain.
But business reacted angrily to claims they were to blame for the lack of productivity and said his “high skill, low tax” vision was a pipedream after he imposed higher national insurance contributions and was failing to tackle issues such as business rates.
The Prime Minister said Britain would benefit from having “got Brexit done” and promised to control immigration to boost wages.
In a swipe at those who have challenged the government over labour shortages, he said: “We are not going back to the same old broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills and low productivity, all of it enabled and assisted by uncontrolled immigration.
“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, skills and equipment.”
He referenced his predecessor Margaret Thatcher to justify his manifesto-breaking tax rise to pay for NHS and social care, saying that she “wouldn’t have ignored the meteorite that has just crashed through our economy”.
Federation of Small Businesses national chairman Mike Cherry said: “The vision championed by the Prime Minister today does not match the current lived realities of small businesses and sole traders.
“For it to be realised, we need ambitious policies aimed at driving growth and reducing tax at the coming Budget. After a conference that’s been light on pro-business policy, it’s time for the party of enterprise to get back on the pitch.
“It’s a relief to hear the PM speak positively about the business community. But it’s equally remarkable to hear the benefits of a low tax economy vaunted when the government has just signed off a hike in national insurance contributions for employers, sole traders and employees alike, which we estimate will cost at least 50,000 jobs.”
Mr Johnson focused his address on the recovery from Covid and said the vaccine discovery and roll-out had been crucial, adding that it was the care of nurses and the forces of capitalism that had made it possible.
“It is thanks to that vaccine roll-out that we now have the most open economy and the fastest growth in the G7 – we have unemployment two million lower than forecast,” he said.
“We have demand surging and I am pleased to say that after years of stagnation – more than a decade – wages are going up faster than before the pandemic began.”
In a 45-minute speech laden with jokes and asides, Mr Johnson spoke of the deep inequalities in education and in wealth that divide the nation and listed a long wish-list of issues to be tackled, from upgrading the A1 and A75 to building more nuclear power stations.
He said productivity would be improved by “fixing the broken housing market”, better bus services and transport links, more gigabits and investing in skills.
Mr Johnson said it was no use blaming immigration for a failure to invest
He declared the Tories the party that has protected the NHS and he listed the latest achievements: 48 new hospitals; 50,000 more nurses; 50m more GP appointments; 40 new diagnostic centres.
On the vaccine programme, he said: “It was not the government that made the wonder drug; it wasn’t brewed in the alembicks of the Department of Health.
“It was, of course it was Oxford University, but it was the private sector that made it possible.
“Behind those vaccines are companies and shareholders and, yes, bankers.
“You need deep pools of liquidity that are to be found in the City of London; it was capitalism that ensured that we had a vaccine in less than a year, and the answer, therefore, is not to attack the wealth creators, it is to encourage them because they are responsible for the aggregate increase in the country’s wealth.
“The vaccines have ensured that by a simple vowel mutation jabs jabs jabs become jobs, jobs, jobs; the world’s most effective vaccines have saved our open society and free market economy.”
He made no mention of the constitution and only briefly referenced Scotland in relation to COP26 in Glasgow, his visit to a wind farm in the Moray Firth, and a pledge to “restore those sinews of the union that have been allowed to atrophy, the A1 north of Berwick and on into Scotland, the A75 in Scotland that is so vital for the links with northern Ireland and the rest of the country.”
SNP Westminster Leader Ian Blackford described Mr Johnson as “the ultimate snake oil salesman”.
“Boris Johnson’s shameless attempt to shift the blame onto anyone but himself will do nothing to fix the crisis he has caused with his disastrous hard Brexit and cruel Tory cuts,” he said.
“The Prime Minister is the ultimate snake oil salesman with empty promises of jam tomorrow, when in reality his Brexit deal has been a disaster – costing Scotland billions of pounds, causing UK exports to collapse, hitting businesses by millions a week, and resulting in rising prices, severe staffing shortages and empty supermarket shelves.”
Tony Danker, CBI Director-General, said: “The Prime Minister has set out a compelling vision for our economy. High wages, high skills, high investment and high growth.
“But the PM has only stated his ambition on wages. This needs to be backed up by action on skills, on investment and on productivity.
“Ambition on wages without action on investment and productivity is ultimately just a pathway for higher prices
“It’s a fragile moment for our economy. So, let’s work in partnership to overcome the short-term challenges and fulfil our long-term potential.
“It’s time to get around the table, roll up our sleeves and get things done. It’s time to be united.”
Dr Joe Marshall, chief executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business said: “The Government has high aspirations, but actions speak louder than words.
“If the Prime Minister is truly serious about regaining the nation’s status as a science superpower, and levelling up – it’s non-negotiable that the Government deliver ambitious spending and policy commitments in the upcoming spending review.
“It’s also vital that the Government recognise that the race to be a science superpower is incredibly competitive. Countries around the world are investing in research and development and are sending positive signals to global business to invest with them. The UK needs to do the same.”