Boris Johnson has vowed to transform the UK into a “high wage, high skill” economy in a Tory party conference speech that was heavy on rhetoric and short on policy.
In a classic Johnson speech, the Prime Minister made a bevy of jokes about Labour, numerous literary references and promises to “build back better” and “level up” the country.
The only new policy announced in his speech was a £3,000 “levelling up premium” to attract the country’s best maths and science teachers to different parts of the country.
Johnson used his speech at the Tory party conference in Manchester, the first in two years, to say a move away from a low wage, low productivity economy will lead to tax cuts in the long-term.
It comes amid calls to sanction short-term visas to EU workers to help solve food and petrol shortages caused by a shortage of key workers such as lorry drivers.
“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 and that matters deeply because we are embarking now on a change of direction that has been long overdue in the UK economy,” 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. And the answer to the present stresses and strains which are mainly a function of growth and economic revival is not to reach for that same old lever of uncontrolled immigration, to keep wages low.
“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, in skills and in the equipment the facilities the machinery they need to do their jobs.
“The truckstops – to pick an example entirely at random – with basic facilities where you don’t have to urinate in the bushes and that is the direction in which this country is going now towards a high wage high skill high productivity and yes, thereby low tax economy.”
The Prime Minister also used his speech to say that “levelling up” the Midlands and the North would need mean a “levelling down” of London and the South East.
Some politicians, including Labour mayor of London Sadiq Khan, have said that there is a threat that increasing opportunities and spending north of the M25 will come at the detriment to the capital.
One of example of this being the government’s refusal to give a long-term funding deal to Transport for London (TfL), after its finances were smashed by the pandemic.
“Overcrowded trains, endless commutes, too little time with the kids, the constant anxiety that your immemorial view of chalk downland is going to be desecrated by ugly new homes,” Johnson said.
“That is why levelling up works for the whole country and is the right and responsible policy, because it helps to take the pressure off parts of the overheating South East while simultaneously offering hope and opportunity to those areas that have felt left behind.”
Johnson also defended the recent 1.25 per cent increase in National Insurance to pay for increased health and social care spending, invoking the memory of Margaret Thatcher.
“I tell you something Margaret Thatcher would not ignore the meteorite that has crashed through our economy,” he said.
“She would have wagged her finger and said more borrowing now is just higher interest rates and even higher taxes later.”
He added: “When I stood on the steps of Downing Street I promised to fix this crisis and after decades of drift and dither this reforming government, this can do government, this government that got Brexit done, that is getting the vaccine rollout done is going to get social care done.”
The speech was savagely panned by the free market Adam Smith Institute think tank.
Its head of research Matthew Lesh said: “Boris’ rhetoric was bombastic but vacuous and economically illiterate. This was an agenda for levelling down to a centrally-planned, high-tax, low-productivity economy.”
CBI director-general Tony Danker said the Prime Minister set out a compelling vision for our economy”, but that “his ambition on wages…needs to be backed up by action on skills, on investment and on productivity”.
The London Chamber of Commerce and Industry were less impressed by Johnson’s conference address.
Its chief executive Richard Burge said: “London’s businesses certainly wish to hear a little less of London being presented almost as a villain in the levelling-up narrative.
“The Prime Minister is right to say that people shouldn’t feel they have to move or commute to the south east in order to progress a career, but it shouldn’t mean levelling or talking London down, or failing to recognise the role of global mobility.”