By Frank Kelly
There are some things you should never say in a crisis. “Don’t panic” is one of them. Government ministers should also understand that pretending a crisis does not exist is unavailing and drives people up the wall. Petrol prices last month reached an eight-year high and a fifth of petrol stations in London and the south-east were out of fuel. Until recently, Boris Johnson’s plan to deal with various crises facing the UK has been to deny they exist. Johnson’s sudden decision to embrace and partly acknowledge shortages exacerbated by Brexit has serious consequences for workers, businesses, and the Labour Party.
It doesn’t take much to find a sector in the UK that’s suffering shortages in staff and supplies. Pigs are being culled in their hundreds, the military has been used to deliver fuel to petrol stations and blood tests are being delayed due to test tube shortages. The Tories have been forced to change their Brexit stance because it is no longer possible to deny these visible shortages exist. They require an explanation. The volte-face from the Tory Party was summed up by MP Kwasi Kwarteng, who said: “We were always going to try to transition to something else”. In other words, the business-kneecapping chaos the UK faces is a necessary evil en route to the “sunlit uplands” of Brexit.
The alternative economy promised by Johnson consists of higher wages and less reliance on migration from the EU. I will explain why gloating about such misleading promises will prolong the suffering of essential workers in the UK, but first, it is worth mentioning that at no point did Johnson mention this “period of adjustment” in his oven-ready Brexit deal. In 2019, the public was misled on what Johnson’s Brexit deal would mean for the UK.
Johnson has now promised the public that higher wages will be the mark of Brexit Britain. On the Andrew Marr Show he claimed, “people on low incomes are being paid more”. Wages, however, are not rising because of Brexit and are not necessarily a sign of a strong economy. Wages are currently rising for two main reasons: 1) labour shortages; 1.3 million non-UK workers have left since 2019. Shortages in the number of low-paid jobs raises average incomes. 2) Wages are growing rapidly as a bounce back from the pandemic. The government previously paid 80% then 60% of people’s wages on furlough. An increase should be expected and is not a sign of a flourishing economy, as the ONS pointed out: “It would clearly be misleading to use such large and distorted annual growth rates as an indicator of the health of the UK economy”.
So, what does Johnson and his cabinet’s misleading “alternative economy” promise mean for workers? They are being told that their wages are increasing when they are not. The Treasury forecasts 3.4% inflation rise this year. Inflation and wage stagnation, combined with inhumane cuts to universal credit, rising energy, fuel and food prices will be very difficult for Johnson to explain – which is exactly why he has performed his latest Brexit repositioning. He won’t need to explain these problems. He acknowledges they exist, to some extent, and pretends they are necessary to reach the high wage economy springing from Brexit.
When wages inevitably don’t rise, he can blame British businesses – as some Tory ministers already are – for not paying workers enough. Anyone who questions whether these serious problems are really costs worth paying en route to the promised benefits of Brexit can join the long line of enemies of the state – judges, the EU, immigrants, experts, English footballers, GPs…
What can be done to help workers and businesses being damaged by Johnson? I think the Labour Party needs to be bold and call out what is exacerbating these problems. Keir Starmer hardly mentioned the B-word in his conference speech. Here’s the problem. If Labour can’t talk about Brexit, then it can’t talk about the causes of these serious shortages. If Labour can’t identify why these problems are so severe, then the Tories have the freedom to blame shortages and rising fuel and food costs on whatever they like. Unless Labour eventually proposes a closer relationship with the EU – for example, restoring freedom of movement, or rejoining the single market – these long-term problems will not disappear.
Johnson, I suppose, has kept one of his promises. As he once announced in a cabinet meeting, he really has decided to “f*** business”.
Image: Number 10 via Flickr