Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday refused to return Britain to its pre-Brexit economy, even as the country faces a supply chain crisis made worse by its divorce from the EU.
In a bullish conference message to loyal Tories gathered in Manchester, north-west England, Johnson vowed to move forward with his post-Covid stimulus package to ‘level’ growth and s ” tackle climate change infrastructure priorities.
The government has sought to blame the global health crisis for an exodus of foreign truck drivers since Brexit went into effect and the free movement of people ended in January.
Deliveries to supermarkets were hit, while the lack of tanker drivers sparked panic buying at gas stations, forcing Johnson to call in the military to deliver inventory.
The government is now facing warnings from farmers that tens of thousands of pigs could be cremated in the coming days without an urgent influx of foreign slaughterhouse workers and butchers.
Mobilized by a large police deployment in Manchester, more than 2,000 demonstrators rallied against the Tories on the opening day of their conference on Sunday.
“We are here today because this government is totally incompetent,” retired teacher Lorraine Thompson told AFP.
“The children are hungry. How can it be in this century? We are here because we have to do something to register our disgust,” she said.
– Channel Churchill –
An anti-Brexit protest banner paraphrased a famous speech by Winston Churchill, British WWII leader – and Johnson’s political hero.
“Never have so much been destroyed by so little #Brexit”, we can read.
But asked by the BBC at the conference, Johnson said the British voted for change in the 2016 Brexit referendum, and again in the 2019 election when the Tories returned to power.
“They voted to end a broken model of the UK economy which was based on low wages, low skills and chronic low productivity,” he said.
“What we cannot do in all these sectors is simply to go back to the tired, failed old model and touch the marked lever of uncontrolled immigration, with people on low wages.
“So yes, there will be a period of adjustment.”
Johnson has also fended off conservative critics who are angry at his government’s increased tax burden and state intervention.
“If I can avoid it, I don’t want to raise taxes again, of course not, nor (Minister of Finance) Rishi Sunak,” he said, before the opening speech of Sunak at the conference on Monday.
Johnson can point to a successful rollout of the Covid vaccination, which has so far seen more than 82% of all over 16s suffer a double blow.
But anger persists in some quarters over his handling of the pandemic and a death toll of more than 136,000, as well as allegations of cronyism benefiting conservative donors for Covid contracts.
On Brexit, he angered Brussels by threatening to suspend problematic new trade deals for Northern Ireland, and tensions are high with France over fishing rights.
Last week, Labor opposition leader Keir Starmer attacked Johnson as a Brexit-obsessed showman with no plan, even though his popularity remains relatively high with the public.
“We have both a fuel crisis, a wage crisis, a property crisis and a cost of living crisis,” Starmer told his own party conference.
– Women’s safety –
Meanwhile, Johnson faces an outcry over the murder of Sarah Everard by London Metropolitan Police officer Wayne Couzens.
The kidnapping of the 33-year-old marketing manager in south London in March sparked angst and nationwide debate over the safety of women and girls.
Couzens, 48, was jailed Thursday for the rest of her life after falsely arresting Everard on the pretext that she violated coronavirus restrictions, before raping and killing her.
Over the weekend, the Met confirmed that Couzens had been approved for armed patrols of Parliament on five occasions last year.
The force in London – Britain’s largest – has been widely criticized for advising women to report a passing bus if stopped by an officer they did not trust.
However, Johnson supported this advice in the BBC interview.
“My take is that the police do – a lot of it – a great job,” he said, calling on “women of all ages to trust the police”.
jit / har