MANCHESTER, England – Declaring Britain will not revert to the ‘broken model’ of the past, Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday pledged to stage a radical transformation of the country’s economy towards a future defined by highly working people. skilled workers earning higher wages.

Projecting sunny optimism but offering few details, Mr Johnson sketched out a vision for Britain on the cusp of change. He barely mentioned the wave of fuel and food shortages that have plagued the country in recent weeks, calling them mainly the consequence of a rapidly recovering economy in transition.

In a speech to an enthusiastic crowd at his Conservative Party’s annual conference, Mr Johnson said: ultimately structural weaknesses in the UK economy.

It was, Mr Johnson said, “a long overdue change in leadership,” adding: “We are not going back to the same old broken model: low wages, low growth, low skills and low productivity – all of that. enabled, as a system, by uncontrolled immigration.

The Prime Minister devoted much of his speech to his flagship ‘leveling up’ policy, which aims to equalize the disparities between economically disadvantaged areas of northern England and its more prosperous south. As he said, “We have one of the most imbalanced societies and imbalanced economies of all the richest countries.”

But Mr Johnson has offered few concrete policies other than a bonus for math and science teachers in economically struggling areas. His other commitments – improving housing, fighting crime and modernizing transportation networks in northern cities – struck a familiar note.

Mr Johnson has called his program “Build Back Better,” the same slogan President Biden uses for his infrastructure legislation (both passed it around the same time last year). Unlike Mr Biden, the Prime Minister riffed on the line, adapting it to describe the return of beavers to British rivers (“Build Back Beaver”) and beef exports to the United States (“Build Back Burger “).

Blending self-deprecating humor, historical and literary references, gleeful punches against the opposition and a populist call for social issues, Mr Johnson has bolstered his status as the all-round Conservative Party cheerleader.

At one point, the Prime Minister, who has six children with multiple partners, lamented Britain’s relatively small population, despite, he said, all his efforts to strengthen it. In another, he described Labor Party leader Keir Starmer as the captain of a cruise ship that had been hijacked by Somali pirates.

Mr Johnson also appealed to the social and cultural issues that resonate with the Tory base. He has vowed to defend the history of Britain and oppose revisionist interpretations of conservative heroes like Winston Churchill.

And Mr Johnson called on Margaret Thatcher, another of his Tory predecessors, to defend government-imposed tax hikes to offset massive pandemic-related spending. Mrs Thatcher, he said, would not have ignored “this meteorite which has just crashed into public finances”.

Despite all the references to Tory icons, however, Mr Johnson’s speech amounted to a remarkable repudiation of traditional guiding principles and his party’s governance record.

The Conservatives have long been the party of business, but Mr Johnson actually forced companies to break their dependence on a low-wage economy. The Tories have led government since 2010, but Mr Johnson has spoken of the past decade as if another party is in charge.

In the eyes of political analysts, Mr Johnson seemed to be launching something new for the post-pandemic and post-Brexit era: a party that combines the spending and interventionist impulses of the Social Democrats with the anti-immigration instincts of the Brexiteers who are ‘are agitating to leave the European Union in 2016. His party has engaged in “radical and optimistic conservatism”, he said.

Mr Johnson’s rhetorical acrobatics featured a politician who repeatedly succeeded in defying political gravity. His 40-minute speech, in a room reserved for him and filled with party supporters, contrasted with the more discreet, sometimes uncrowded, appearances of his ministers on previous days. It underscored the Prime Minister’s total control over the Conservative Party.

Yet as Britain faces painful adjustments, Mr Johnson faces a convergence of hostile tendencies that could test this high-flying act. Rising food and fuel prices are straining consumers; gasoline shortages have forced motorists to wait hours to refuel.

Mr Johnson described these challenges as growing pains – evidence of an economy waking up from the pandemic and rebuilding itself to reap the benefits of a highly skilled and well-paid future.

For ordinary people, however, the specter of fuel and food shortages in late fall is more like the 1970s, and the time of strikes and price spikes that newspapers have called “the winter of discontent.” “.

Even some members of his own party seemed unconvinced, with influential Tory lawmaker Tom Tugendhat write on twitter that “wage increases are important unless prices are rising faster.” Inflation matters – it’s about what we can afford and how families manage to make ends meet during a tough month. “

Critics also took issue with Mr Johnson’s claim that Brexit had enabled Britain to forge a new submarine alliance with the United States and Australia. Britain has a long-standing intelligence relationship with these countries, and national governments control defense within the European Union.

Mr Johnson has attempted to draw a new line with the opposition Labor Party, which he has described as welcoming unchecked immigration – and the resulting low wages – as Tories seek training and better pay for British workers.

Asked in an interview this week about how Britain would deal with the immediate consequences of an economic transition that could take years, he echoed a phrase made famous by Mrs Thatcher: ‘There is no alternative “.

But Mr Johnson’s comments dramatized the extent of his break with his legacy. The party’s traditional relations with business have been strained because of Brexit, which was opposed by big business that profited from the gigantic European single market. And in recent days, the prime minister has added to the tensions, berating some companies for what he called a failure to invest in their workers.

While even its critics welcome the idea of ​​moving away from a low-wage, low-skill economy, Britons could suffer if government policies cause inflation and interest rates to spike. Much of the fiscal stimulus the government injected into the economy to cushion the blow of the pandemic – including paying most of the salaries of people who had been sent home – have been cut.

Mr Johnson urged people to return to their offices but otherwise ignored cost of living issues. Instead, he celebrated what he described as the unquenchable spirit of the British. It was evident, he said, among the scientists who developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, the National Health Service nurses and Emma Raducanu, the 18-year-old who won the US Open tennis championship on last month.

While those lines drew applause from conservatives in the room, the reaction from businesses across the country has been far more suspicious.

“Businesses face a cumulative crisis in trading conditions as supply chains collapse, prices skyrocket, taxes rise and labor shortages reach new heights,” said the British Chambers of Commerce Managing Director Shevaun Haviland, adding that “the economic recovery is on slippery ground.

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Margarita W. Wilson

The author Margarita W. Wilson