The gauntlet was well and truly thrown down to business at the Tory conference in Manchester this week.
Charges of not paying UK workers enough and relying on cheap European labour were coupled with criticisms of poor investment in new equipment and technology. Also, around the conference there remained the suspicion that the petrol crisis was whipped up by a haulage industry that had exploited drivers for years.
So, there we have it the traditional party of business telling bosses to pay their staff more and invest for jobs leaving Labour once again floundering for an answer to the Tories who seem to lack principals but have a mastery of political tactics.
Up to now people, particularly in the North, have shown a weird affection for the Master of Bluster who is leading this country. Johnson’s cheerful demeanour seems to be enough in the face of the coming storm from energy price rises, higher taxes and the withdrawal of the Universal Credit top up.
They don’t mind that he is poorly briefed on many issues. This was exposed on Sunday when the BBC’s Andrew Marr suggested to the PM that roast pork was about to take on a whole new meaning as farmers slaughtered pigs that could not be processed and burnt them on their farms. A fatuous joke sufficed for the Prime Minister.
It is partly because Labour is still not cutting through. The Tories clearly think there is no threat for them, or they wouldn’t have spent their time in Manchester with a late celebration of their December 2019 victory and railing against businesses.
I call it a conference but any pretence that the Conservative rank and file have any ability to influence things has long gone. Even the debating hall was smaller because organisers didn’t want the sight of rows of empty seats. Even some Tories can’t afford a week of Manchester city centre hotel prices now that the party has turned its back on the Blackpool landladies.
Let us see how it all turns out. Business is feeling bruised but there is merit in them looking after their workers and investing more. Not that they have been helped by a government that has taken them out of the EU and lacks a coherent programme for “levelling up.” You would have thought that a conference in Manchester would have been the time to clarify this policy. Some hope that now that Michael Gove is in charge of it, that we will get clarity. I think the truth is that the Tories were spooked by defeat in Chesham and Amersham and the policy now amounts to a general nationwide drive to generally improve skills, infrastructure, and the environment. The Northern Powerhouse will just limp along.
Maybe Johnson’s optimism will prove well founded but there are huge dangers in his approach to business. The Prime Minister may have sown the seeds of a winter of strikes as workers, encouraged by him to ask for more pay, do so as prices soar. It is unclear how the crisis in energy costs is going to play out but come January we may see a different public mood.