Boris Johnson’s conference speech condemned by business leaders

By Martina Betteto & Dave Clark

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

On the last day of the Conservative Party conference, Mr Johnson said he was setting out the “difficult” process of reshaping the British economy.

With labour shortages hitting supply chains, leading to empty shelves and queues at petrol stations, Mr Johnson defended his strategy of restricting the supply of cheap foreign labour after Brexit, insisting his new approach would ultimately create a “low-tax economy”.

But businesses leaders have criticised this 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.”

The Federation of Small Businesses criticised the 45-minute conference speech, noting Labour, and not the Conservatives, are the only party with a “pro-small business policy”.

Craig Beaumont, chief of external affairs at the Federation of Small Businesses, told Times Radio: “Looking at this party conference season, there was one party of the two that came out with a pro small business policy.

“And I think, you know, the Government should be looking at that and going: ‘Well, maybe we’ve taken this group a bit for granted’. So now, what is that small business offer? What is their response? And at the moment there isn’t much, so there needs to be a really strong response to the budget.”

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’s 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.”

When pressed on the discontent felt by business leaders, Conservative MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central Jo Gideon defended the Government, telling BBC Newsnight: “We’ve got a billion job vacancies at the moment but we’ve got also unemployment.

“When we went into the pandemic, it was predicted that we would have more than two million more unemployed that we actually have so I mean it’s a success story of the furlough of the £400 billon that was invested to keep people and businesses afloat.”

She added: “I am out there meeting businesses every day and I’m hearing two things: they are both enormously grateful for the support that they have from the Government during the pandemic, and also very much looking forward to being part of this massive chunk of jobs where they have support, apprenticeships and kickstart schemes to take new people on.

“In my own constituency, there is a massive commitment for local businesses to support.”

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