As Johnson Draws a Happy Face, Britons Confront a Run of Bad News

LONDON — Britons are lining up for gas, staring at empty grocery shelves, paying higher taxes and worrying about spiraling prices as a grim winter approaches.

But to visit the Conservative Party conference in Manchester this past week was to enter a kind of happy valley, where cabinet ministers danced, sang karaoke and drained flutes of champagne — Pol Roger, Winston Churchill’s favorite brand, naturally.

Nobody captured the bonhomie better than Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who told a whooping crowd of party faithful, “You all represent the most jiving, hip, happening, and generally funkapolitan party in the world.”

The cognitive dissonance extended beyond the Mardi Gras atmosphere. In his upbeat keynote speech, Mr. Johnson characterized the multiple ills afflicting Britain as a “function of growth and economic revival” — challenging but necessary post-Brexit adjustments on the way to a more prosperous future.

It was at least his third explanation for the food and fuel shortages, which continued in some areas after three weeks. Initially, he denied there was a crisis. Then, he said the shortages were not about Brexit — contradicting analysts, union leaders, food producers and business owners — but were hitting every Western country as they emerged from the pandemic. And finally, he cited the stresses as evidence that Brexit was doing its job in shaking up the economy.

“It is the ultimate in post-hoc rationalization — the idea that this is a well-thought-out plan, that we intended to do this all along,” said Jill Rutter, a senior research fellow at the U.K. in a Changing Europe, a London think tank.

Few politicians have either the indomitable cheer or the ideological flexibility of Mr. Johnson, so it was hardly surprising that he tried to put the best face on Britain’s run of bad news. He remains utterly in command of the Conservative Party, which has an 80-seat majority in the Parliament, and comfortably ahead of the opposition Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, in opinion polls.

Cars lined up for gas in Slough, west of London, late last month.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

Yet political analysts and economists said there were risks in the Panglossian tone he struck in Manchester. With inflation projected to continue at a relatively high level, and the government admitting that shortages could continue until Christmas, voters could quickly sour on Mr. Johnson. Then next year come tax rises, after he broke his promise not to increase them last month.

In hindsight, some said, the conference might be seen as a high-water mark for the prime minister.

“A few days of disruption to fuel supplies makes the government look foolish,” said Jonathan Portes, a professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London. “Much larger fuel bills are a much bigger deal.”

Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, said Mr. Johnson could come to resemble James Callaghan, the Labour prime minister who was toppled in 1979 after a winter of fuel shortages and runaway inflation, when he did not appear sufficiently alarmed about the pileup of problems.

When Mr. Johnson bounded into the auditorium at the conference last week, stopping to kiss his wife, Carrie, he looked anything but alarmed. Between jokes and jibes at the opposition, he presented a blueprint for a post-Brexit economy that he claimed would deliver high wages for skilled British workers, rather than lower-cost immigrants from the European Union, and put the onus on businesses to foot the bill.

Companies and previous governments “reached for the same old lever of uncontrolled immigration to keep wages low,” Mr. Johnson said. “The answer is to control immigration, to allow people of talent 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 they need to do their jobs.”

That model is worlds away from Singapore-on-Thames, the catchphrase once used by the intellectual authors of Brexit to describe an open, lightly regulated, business-friendly hub that they said Britain would become once it cast off the labor laws and other shackles of Brussels. Nobody is talking about removing labor laws now (indeed, Mr. Johnson may soon move to raise Britain’s minimum wage).

A shopper browsing empty shelves in a supermarket in London last month.Credit…Justin Tallis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Contradictions between protectionists and free-marketeers have run through the Brexit movement from the start. “I describe it as Little England versus Global Britain,” Mr. Portes said, noting that Mr. Johnson, because of his lack of fixed convictions, was well-suited to hold this coalition together.

Since Mr. Johnson’s landslide election victory in 2019, however, the gravity in the Conservative Party has shifted decisively toward protectionism and anti-immigration policies. That was the message that helped the Tories lure disenchanted, working-class, former Labour voters in the industrial Midlands and North of England.

Many of these voters want the jobs that would come with the revival of British heavy industry, not better opportunities for hedge-fund managers in London. Conservative politicians who once championed the Singapore-on-Thames model now play it down.

Mr. Johnson has embraced a blame-it-on-business message which, while at odds with his party’s traditional principles, is popular with his new base. He singled out the trucking industry, arguing that its failure to invest in better truck stops — “with basic facilities where you don’t have to urinate in the bushes,” he said — was one of the reasons young people did not aspire to becoming drivers.

“It’s all of a piece with his move toward a much more populist style,” Mr. Bale said. “Johnson is pressing the right buttons, as far as these people are concerned.”

His tough-on-business language has scrambled the traditional lines in British politics. On Friday, voters were treated to the curious spectacle of Mr. Starmer lashing out at Mr. Johnson for his attacks on business and presenting the Labour Party as the better partner for Britain’s corporations.

For Mr. Johnson, critics said, the biggest risk is a lack of credibility. His initial claim that the food and fuel shortages were not caused by Brexit sounded unconvincing, given that his own government predicted rising prices and shortages of both in a 2019 report on the potential disruptions in the event of a “no-deal Brexit,” in which Britain would leave the European Union without a trade agreement.

A station that ran out of gas in Slough last month.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

The report, known as Operation Yellowhammer, laid out “reasonable worst-case planning assumptions,” among them that “certain types of fresh food supply will decrease” and that “customer behavior could lead to local shortages” of fuel. Though Britain negotiated a bare-bones trade deal with Brussels, its effect was similar to that of no deal.

While it’s true that Mr. Johnson is indisputably setting his party’s agenda, it is not clear that the internal debates over the shape of a post-Brexit future are entirely settled. Rishi Sunak, the popular chancellor of the Exchequer, spoke at the conference about his years in California, and how he viewed Silicon Valley as a model for Britain.

“I’m not sure that having a truck-driver shortage is part of that vision,” Ms. Rutter, the research fellow, said.

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