Under fire, UK PM Johnson tries to return to election agenda
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will return his focus to tackling regional inequality on Wednesday, hoping a final speech at his Conservative Party’s conference will draw a line under a series of crises buffeting his government.
After a week when Johnson has been forced to defend his government against complaints over fuel shortages, fears for Christmas food supplies and farmers having to destroy their produce, the prime minister hopes to reset his agenda.
So far at the conference, traditionally used by leaders to fire up the party faithful, he has failed to turn the focus away from crises fuelled by COVID-19 and Brexit, and towards his 2019 election pledges to tackle inequality, crime and social care.
He will double down on his desire for Britain to change direction, away from the “same old broken model with low wages, low growth, low skills and low productivity” to “a high wage, high skill, high productivity economy”.
“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 will tell the conference in the northern English city of Manchester.
“To deliver that change we will get on with our job of uniting and levelling up across the UK – the greatest project that any government can embark on,” he will say, according to excerpts of his speech.
Answering critics who have called for more measures to bring in foreign workers to plug gaps in the haulage and agriculture industries, Johnson will again say the solution does not lie in pulling “the same old lever of uncontrolled migration”.
Instead, he will call on businesses to do more to lift wages and attract more workers – a criticism of British companies that minister after minister at the conference has repeated.
But he will have to work hard to win over some at the conference, who fear the Conservatives are no longer conservative after breaking with a commitment to lower taxes and, as they see it, abandoning the party’s more affluent southern English supporters for those in the north.
Johnson is raising taxes to help tackle crisies in health and social care and has made large spending commitments on everything from trains to schools to high streets as part of his “levelling up” agenda to tackle regional inequality.
“Levelling up works for the whole country – and is the right and responsible policy,” he will say.
“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.”
Reporting by Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Giles Elgood