British Prime Minister Boris Johnson rallied his Conservative party faithful yesterday, vowing a far-reaching overhaul to wean the UK economy off cheap foreign labour after Brexit. Shrugging off panic buying at petrol stations, bare supermarket shelves and retailers’ warnings of a bleak Christmas to come, the Tory leader said the short-term pain was worth it.
Closing the Conservatives’ annual conference, their first in-person event since 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic, Johnson was on characteristically bullish form with an array of partisan zingers hurled against the opposition Labour party.
There was little new policy detail in the 45-minute speech, save for a “levelling up” premium to recruit maths and science teachers in disadvantaged areas, and promises of a new programme of road and rail infrastructure in Labour’s former stronghold in northern England.
More broadly, Johnson framed a narrative that the UK’s departure from the European Union presents a historic opportunity to remake the country.
“We are dealing with the biggest underlying issues of our economy and society, the problems that no government has had the guts to tackle before,” he said.
“We are embarking now on the change of direction that has been long overdue in the UK economy,” he added, vowing no return to the pre-Brexit model of “uncontrolled immigration”.
Instead, British businesses will have to invest in their workers and technology to push the country “towards a high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy”. But Johnson warned it will take time to transition.
In the meantime, the government has grudgingly agreed to a limited number of short-term visas to lure truckers and poultry workers from eastern Europe.
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