Boris Johnson faces backlash over ‘economically illiterate’ conference speech

7 October 2021, 01:20 | Updated: 7 October 2021, 11:00

Boris Johnson said he would address the "underlying issues" in society at the Conservative Party Conference.
Boris Johnson said he would address the "underlying issues" in society at the Conservative Party Conference. Picture: Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

Boris Johnson's conference speech has been heavily condemned by business bosses for lacking a coherent economic plan.

Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in his first in-person address since before the pandemic, Mr Johnson said he was setting out the "difficult" process of reshaping the British economy.

He said he would tackle "the long-term structural weaknesses" in society and accused past Governments of "shirking" responsibility for the key issues in the UK.

Discussing the problems facing the NHS, Mr Johnson explained: "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's getting the Covid vaccine rollout done, is going to get social care done and we are going to deal with the biggest underlying issues of our economy and society - the problems that no Government has had the guts to tackle before, and I mean the long-term structural weaknesses in the UK economy."

Read more: 'They belong in jail': Boris Johnson backs targeting eco-protesters

Mr Johnson told crowds the country was "embarking on a change of direction that has been long overdue".

"We are not going back to the same old broken model with low wages, low growth and low skills and low productivity, all of it enabled and assisted by uncontrolled immigration," he said.

"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.

Watch in full: Boris Johnson makes keynote Conservative conference speech

"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."

He added: "That is the direction in which this country is going now.

"Towards a high wage, high skill, high productivity, and yes, thereby a low tax economy.

"That is what the people of this country need and deserve."

However, business bosses have criticised the Prime Minister's approach, with many arguing that restricting migration could lead to higher inflation and increase costs on the consumers.

Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland and Leave voter, complained about the Government treating businesses like an "endless sponge" when they can only weather so many cost increases at once.

He told the Times: "The finger is being pointed at business as the bogeyman, but it's much wider than that. We want to pay our people as much as possible but business is not an endless sponge that can keep absorbing costs in one go.

"Next year we'll have a wave of higher costs in one go. Next year we'll have a wave of higher costs from higher energy bills, extra HGV drivers, packaging costs. We can only weather many cost increases at once, so they need to tape it."

Read more: Priti Patel pledges 'wholesale reform' of UK's 'broken' immigration system

Free market think tank the Adam Smith Institute described the address as "bombastic but vacuous and economically illiterate", while Conservative think tank Bright Blue said there was "no inspiring new vision or policy".

Ryan Shorthouse, director of Bright Blue, said in an interview with the Guardian: "The public will soon tire of Boris' banter if the Government does not get a grip of mounting crises: price rises, tax rises, fuel shortages, labour shortages.

"There was nothing new in this speech, no inspiring new vision or policy."

Boris Johnson also used his speech to attack Labour, who held their conference in Brighton last week.

He told the audience his party was "radical" against a "tired old Labour", and said they put on a "hopelessly divided" performance during their conference.

"Their leader looked like a seriously rattled bus conductor, pushed this way and that by a Corbynista mob, sellotaped-spectacled soggy lot."

He then hit out at their performance during the pandemic, saying they were "flapping with the conviction of a damp tea towel".

"They refused to say that schools were safe, they would have kept us in the European Medicines Agency and slammed the brakes on the vaccine rollout, and the Labour leader attacked the vaccine taskforce for spending money on outreach to vaccine-hesitant minority groups," said Mr Johnson.

Boris Johnson's words were met with rapturous applause from members.

Speaking afterwards, Home Office minister Kit Malthouse said the Prime Minister's talk of "harnessing the spirit of the British people" left him feeling "electrified".

He added: "[Boris Johnson] is both a poet and a politician in his own way."

Read more: PM criticises 'lying, cowardly' men as he addresses violence against women

International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan said Boris Johnson's speech showed he would "not shy away from challenges which have to be tackled".

"He brings that unique set of characteristics of his which is the ability to see the solutions and absolutely not shy away from the challenges which absolutely have to be tackled," she said.

"I think we demonstrated it through Covid with the vaccine rollout and how he handled that in a world-leading way.

"I think it is really exciting now to hear him look forward to the challenges of rebalancing our economy, making sure that those skills and the opportunity for productivity to be as good as it can be are brought in."

However, others have dismissed Mr Johnson's speech as "nothing but hot air".

Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, said: "We had slogans over specifics at a time when costs are rising, inflation is a real worry, universal credit is reduced for millions, there are widespread food and fuel shortages and a very real climate crisis."

He said Mr Johnson's pitch would "ring hollow for many", adding: "As ever, this political jester came up with nothing but hot air."