How close is Boris Johnson to realising his post-Brexit vision?

With most Brits vaccinated, the Prime Minister may finally turn his attention to the economy

Having spent most of his first two years in office battling the coronavirus pandemic, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has finally been given the opportunity to concentrate his energy on his ambitious agenda for rebuilding the British economy.

As he made abundantly clear during this week’s annual Conservative Party conference in Manchester, the first time the party faithful had convened since Mr Johnson won his landslide election victory in December 2019, his primary post-pandemic focus will be to reinvigorate a British economy that has been battered by the twin challenges of Brexit and Covid-19.

As the architect of Britain’s historic decision to end its membership of the EU, Mr Johnson has long argued that Britain’s economic prospects would be far better served by going its own way and expanding its global trade links.

But Mr Johnson’s ability to demonstrate the economic potential of exiting the EU have been constrained both by the devastating impact of the pandemic on the economy, as well as the disruption to trade that has been caused by Brexit.

So, with the effects of the pandemic gradually receding, and nearly 90 per cent of the British public now having had both vaccine jabs, Mr Johnson has finally been given a chance to demonstrate his post-Brexit economic vision.

At the heart of Mr Johnson’s vision is a desire to achieve what he calls a “levelling up” in the British economy, spreading wealth creation and opportunity throughout the entire country, rather than having all of the nation’s economic advantages concentrated primarily in southern England, which has often been the case in recent decades.

Indeed, his levelling up agenda is credited with helping to win him his 2019 election victory, as he succeeded in winning a number of long-standing Labour seats in the Midlands and the North-East with his promise to end years of under-investment.

This week’s conference, therefore, provided Mr Johnson with his first opportunity to set out his plans before his Conservative supporters. If successful, they could win him another sizeable majority at the next general election, which could be held as soon as the spring of 2023.

Johnson has argued that Britain’s economic prospects would be better served by going its own way

And while Mr Johnson's critics will complain that his speech was strong on rhetoric but weak on detail, the British leader nevertheless oozed confidence.

Mr Johnson wants Britain to move towards being a “high-wage, high-skill, high productivity” economy that will ultimately result in the country becoming a “low-tax nation”.

In order to achieve this goal, it is vital that Britain moved away from the “same old broken model” of the uncontrolled immigration that was tolerated pre-Brexit, when the British businesses were able to draw on cheap labour from Eastern Europe. Instead, Mr Johnson called on business leaders in Britain to offer higher wages to attract UK workers, thereby providing a boost to national living standards.

If Mr Johnson’s speech won generous applause from the packed conference hall, his call for what amounts to a new industrial revolution in Britain, one that places skills and better wages at the forefront of British enterprise, is likely to face stiff opposition from British business leaders, many of whom are now struggling from Brexit and the pandemic.

One of the most visible impacts has been a nationwide labour shortage, in part caused by the significant numbers of foreign workers who have returned home following Brexit. The other factor is the large numbers of the working population who have been furloughed during the lengthy pandemic lockdowns.

In recent weeks, these labour shortages have resulted in the nation suffering fuel shortages, with long queues forming at filling stations around the country and some supermarket shelves suffering shortages in key items.

Nor is it just concerns over fuel supplies that threaten to undermine Mr Johnson’s bold vision for what he calls “building back better” in the aftermath of the pandemic.

There are also serious concerns about rising inflation – in part a consequence of rising labour costs – and the very real threat to the nation’s economic well-being caused by the recent, sharp increase in global energy prices.

With Britain, along with many other major European economies, committed to reducing its traditional reliance on fossil fuels in favour of new, cleaner supplies of energy, the economy is more reliant on gas.

The spike in global demand has seen wholesale gas prices in Britain rise by more than six-fold in recent weeks, with industry leaders warning there could be blackouts during the winter.

But despite the gathering economic storm clouds, Mr Johnson remains optimistic that his long-term project for reforming the British economy can still be accomplished, insisting that many of the present problems were the result of the economic rebound in the wake of Covid-19 shutdowns.

And he remains confident that his reforming agenda will help to improve the lives of ordinary working people, especially those who live beyond the prosperous confines of the south-east of England.

"There is no reason why the inhabitants of one part of the country should be geographically fated to be poorer than others," Mr Johnson said. "You will find talent, genius, flair, imagination, enthusiasm - all of them evenly distributed around this country. But opportunity is not."

Mr Johnson clearly has an ambitious vision for Britain’s post-Brexit future. Now, he faces the infinitely more daunting task of making it happen.

Published: October 7th 2021, 2:00 PM
Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National