Boris Johnson Urges Businesses to Help Resolve Britain’s Shortages

MANCHESTER, England — Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday dismissed suggestions that Britain was in crisis, saying that businesses needed to do more to end the fuel and goods shortages that have afflicted the country by raising wages, improving working conditions and training Britons to drive trucks and do other hard-to-fill jobs.

Speaking on the eve of his keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference, Mr. Johnson said that there was “no alternative” to the disruption that has closed gas stations, left supermarket shelves bare and threatens to drive up prices for ordinary Britons. A crippling shortage of truckers was, he said, caused not by lack of planning but by an economy recovering like “a giant waking up.”

The main backdrop to the conference has been the disruptions to daily life as a result of the gas shortages now concentrated in southern England, and empty shelves in some supermarket shelves. Both are partly a result of Brexit, which has made it harder to hire workers from abroad and worsened a shortage of truck drivers. On Monday, troops were put to work driving fuel tankers to make up for the lack of truckers.

Energy and other prices are rising, stirring fears of inflation, even as a bonus provided to many welfare recipients during the coronavirus pandemic is being withdrawn, and a furlough system that supported workers sent home is ending.

Vehicles waiting to refill at a fuel station in London last week. Credit…Hannah Mckay/Reuters

Britain’s labor market has been hit by Brexit, which prevents employers from freely recruiting workers from the continent, as they once could. Mr. Johnson and his allies, however, argue that this will improve workers’ life in the long term because wages will have to rise.

Last week the government appeared to blame consumers for panic-buying fuel, causing long lines and shortages. But Mr. Johnson has been forced to retreat by offering visas to foreign truckers and extending the time they can work in Britain. On Tuesday, he said that only 127 visas had so far been issued.

In effect, Mr. Johnson and his conservative allies have doubled down on their policies, presenting shortages and supply disruption as a result of a fast post-pandemic economic recovery in a country where many workers are underpaid.

He has called on businesses to step up investment in employees and pay higher wages, and there has been speculation this week that among the measures Mr. Johnson would propose in his speech Wednesday was an increase to the minimum wage.

That message, and his resistance to increased immigration, could appeal to working-class voters who abandoned the opposition Labour Party in 2019 in the heartlands, switched to the Conservatives and gave Mr. Johnson a landslide general election victory.

Asked by the BBC whether there was a crisis, Mr. Johnson said “No,” adding that supply chains were reflecting “the stresses and strains you’d expect from a giant waking up.”

Pressing his case against business, he said that for too long Britain had taken “a low-wage, low-cost approach where business does not invest in skills, does not invest in capital or facilities.”

He singled out the trucking industry, saying: “The fact is that they haven’t been putting money into truck stops, into conditions, into pay, so there is no supply of young people in this country who frankly at the moment are thinking of becoming truck drivers.”

Critics have accused the Conservatives of complacency and of being out of touch with most people.

On Sunday, the prime minister seemed to make light of fears that thousands of pigs could be culled and disposed of because of a shortage of meatpacking workers. The “great hecatomb of pigs” had so far not taken place, Mr. Johnson said in a classical allusion to mass animal sacrifice, prompting anger from farmers.

A pig farm near Bungay, England. Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Even some of the right-wing media commentary has been less than flattering.

“For all his hyperbolic railing against the unsustainability of Britain’s last-minute supply chains, the sorry truth is that we are at the mercy of a just-in-time Prime Minister,” wrote Judith Woods in the Daily Telegraph, calling him “a man of straw who seems only to make decisions when they are forced upon him by circumstance or catastrophe.’’

The government also tried to stem criticism that Britain had a policing crisis, with the home secretary, Priti Patel, announcing an inquiry into the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer — a crime that shook the nation.

The Home Office said that this would not be a statutory inquiry with legal power to compel witnesses to give evidence, though it might be converted to one if necessary. The announcement came one day after London’s Metropolitan Police said it would commission an independent review into its culture and standards, in the wake of disturbing disclosures about how Ms. Everard’s killer used his authority as an officer to commit the crime.

Although the Conservative Party activists were meeting for the first time in person in two years, announcements by cabinet ministers have been relatively sparse, prompting speculation that some are being saved for Mr. Johnson’s closing speech.

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