‘Quite frankly wrong’: Business hits back as Johnson blames industry for U.K. logistics collapse

October 6, 2021, 2:17 PM UTC

Is business to blame for Britain’s supply chain mess? Boris Johnson thinks so.

In a speech to the party faithful on Wednesday, the leader of the traditionally pro-business Conservative Party doubled down on his message that the U.K.’s fuel crisis and supply chain strains—caused by labor shortages—were a natural by-product of “growth and economic revival.” And, for good measure, he blamed the trucking industry for underinvesting.

It’s a message that Johnson has repeated in recent days, drawing outrage from a sector that has been warning of a critical shortage of drivers for months. On Tuesday, David Wells, CEO of Logistics UK, called such claims “quite frankly wrong,” pointing instead to the U.K. government’s immigration policy, and delays in testing and certifying new drivers.

Unlike in the U.S. and other countries with mounting labor shortages, the U.K.’s problems have a distinct source: In large part, they can be attributed to a post-Brexit clampdown on the flow of labor from the European Union that, until last year, the country depended on to staff everything from logistics operations and abattoirs to investment banks and the National Health Service.

The shortage of drivers in the trucking industry, which has seen a departure of 19,000 drivers owing to the pandemic and changes in Brexit immigration policy, has had an especially pernicious domino effect throughout the U.K. economy, spurring delays and shortages in everything from fuel to groceries. Increasing the sense of crisis, a short-term program to give drivers three-month visas ahead of Christmas has also flopped. On Tuesday, the U.K. government told Fortune that only 27 drivers had applied for the permits—not 127 as Johnson himself claimed.

Happy talk

Speaking at the Conservative Party conference on Wednesday, however, the Prime Minister struck a triumphant tone, peppering his speech with his customary off-color jokes to raucous applause, and only briefly addressing the “present stresses and strains” that have left parts of the country with hour-long queues for fuel.

“The answer is to control immigration—to allow people to come to this country, but not to use immigration as an excuse for failure to invest in people, in skills, and in the equipment, the facilities, the machinery,” Johnson said. He singled out increasing the quality of truck stops, “so people don’t have to urinate in the bushes.”

“That is the direction in which this country is going: towards a high wage, high skill, high productivity and yes, thereby a low tax, economy, that the people of this country deserve,” he said.

The trucking industry isn’t the only sector feeling dissed by Johnson as it grapples with supply chain and labor shortages. Similarly, the U.K. farming industry has begun culling healthy pigs owing to a scarcity of labor so severe they cannot get animals to slaughterhouses in time.

“I am desperate to get the facts to the Prime Minister about this story,” National Farmers’ Union president Minette Batters told BBC Radio 4 on Monday. “We have never had a cull of healthy livestock in this country, and…this cannot—be a first. I cannot stress this enough, it is a welfare disaster.”

The day before, when asked about the impending cull, Johnson had sidestepped questions about how he would assist the sector and seemed to equate the culling and disposal of healthy animals with butchering them for food, telling presenter Andrew Marr: “I hate to break it to you, Andrew, that our food processing industry does involve killing a lot of animals.”

Johnson also said the issue was one of “investment” and long-term issues in the industry and that the “great hecatomb”—borrowed from the ancient Greek concept of a vast public sacrifice—of pigs had yet to occur.

“Let’s see what happens,“ he added.

But as of Wednesday, the cull had indeed begun. The meat and farming industry went unmentioned in Johnson’s Conservative Party speech, as he quickly turned back to his usual talking points: celebrating the U.K.’s vaccine rollout, its departure from the EU, the strategy of “leveling up” the rest of the country with London and southern England, celebrating the embrace of renewable energy, and attacking what the party has called a culture of “woke.”

In one classic bit, Johnson joked that, seeking to appease post-vaccination anxieties, the party had sent top politicians to our “sweatiest boîte de nuit”—French for nightclub—“to show that anyone could dance perfectly safely.”

“And wasn’t he brilliant?” he added, referring to a viral video of famously awkward cabinet minister Michael Gove raving at a club in Aberdeen. “Let’s hear it for Jon Bon Govie!”

At another point, he joked that the Conservative Party was also responsible for a drop in crime, and “not just, by the way, because we took the precaution of locking up much of the public for the last 18 months,” referring to the U.K.’s three national lockdowns.

The remark drew appreciative laughter from the crowd.

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