Richard North, 05/10/2021  

While purple petrol tankers were in evidence yesterday, it seems that the "fuck business" party is going to war – with business. That would appear to be the most obvious conclusion to draw from the headline in the Telegraph which has the Tories declare: "Businesses have become 'drunk on cheap labour'".

Oddly enough, at the same time, the Financial Times, in the person of business columnist Helen Thomas is intoning that "Labour shortages must not be seen as simple case of business vs Brexit".

At least Thomas need not worry as it's not Brexit, as such, in the front line. Rather, as Tory cabinet ministers would have it, it's all the fault of industry. The empty shelves and fuel shortages are down to firms failing to prepare for Brexit.

The focus of this rallying cry to the faithful is, of course, the Conservative Party conference, where a series of ministers has criticised firms, with several members of the cabinet understood to be "furious" at what they see are companies trying to shift blame on to the government.

One "senior source" is said by the Telegraph to be asserting that "a failure of the free market, not the state" is behind the fuel crisis and empty shelves. The government is thus insisting that industry must shoulder the responsibility for petrol and food shortages, putting business firmly in the frame for any Christmas shortages.

This, says the Telegraph, marks a significant departure from the Tories' traditional stance as the champion of business. Furthermore, we are told, it reflects the determination of the fool Johnson to follow through on his promise to make Britain a high-wage, high-skill economy as part of the Brexit dividend.

The paper then relies on another of those convenient but anonymous sources, this one "close to a senior cabinet minister". It is he (or she, if very close – although you never know these days) who obligingly says: "They [businesses] have known for five years that we were ending freedom of movement, and we have told them repeatedly they shouldn't pull the lever of uncontrolled immigration every time. But they are drunk on cheap labour".

Up front, we then have some ministers prepared to come out in the open. Rishi Sunak, who stands in for the Chancellor, says he could not "wave a magic wand" to solve the supply chain crisis. It is his view that industry must "rethink the way its supply chains operated".

Paul Scully, the business minister that nobody has ever heard of, says firms have a "collective responsibility" to find solutions, while his secretary, Kwasi Modo, believes that firms have "become too reliant on too few suppliers".

To warm up this nicely developing spat, business leaders, it seems, are ready to play their part, hitting back by accusing the government of "starting to panic" in the face of potential shortages at Christmas and "getting their excuses in early".

Although none are named directly by the paper in this specific context, they apparently warned government "months ago" about the shortage of lorry drivers that is behind the current problems. Therefore, government should have ensured sufficient drivers could be allowed into the country from abroad to fill the gaps.

However, Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland supermarkets, is named He thinks the current crisis is "a self-inflicted wound" by ministers, who are hitting out "in a panic". Tony Danker, CBI director general, says government needs to convene a task force with businesses to solve the supply problems rather than blaming firms.

So the biff-bam continues, with ministers saying that businesses had had "years" to prepare for life after Brexit, pointing out that "better-organised companies" such as Tesco rarely had any shortages of products on their shelves.

One minister goes so far as to assert that the fact that truck drivers sometimes had to sleep in their vehicles and urinate in bushes due to a lack of decent quality truck stops, putting off potential drivers, was "a failure of the free market, not the state".

The Telegraph then chips in, telling us all that it "understands" – code for "we have been told this by the government press officer" - that concerns about supermarket supply chains were raised by ministers during Operation Yellowhammer.

Seeing as this was a planning exercise carried out three years ago for a no-deal Brexit, setting out the reasonable "worst case scenario", it is hard to see its direct relevance.

And so another "source" is roped in to complain that, while some businesses reorganised their supply chains to withstand shocks, others "had no business plan at all", and assumed the government would step in to sort out any problems.

Then we get to the litany to get the juices of the faithful flowing: there are now concerns, this helpful source says, that industries previously reliant on cheap foreign labour, such as road haulage and pork production, are trying to unpick the government's immigration policy by demanding that ministers make it easier for foreign workers to get visas.

But never fear. The heroic Johnson has "stood firm", making it clear that firms need to pay better wages to attract more staff into sectors where there are shortages.

All along, it appears, our hero has been "categorical" in public that the country voted for "change" to low-skill, low-wage sectors when it backed Brexit in the 2016 referendum and voted for him in the 2019 general election. Therefore, for him, recent wage growth is a victory for his levelling up agenda, despite fears of soaring inflation.

And, even if the supply chain problems are not down to the failure of businesses to prepare, Johnson argues that it's all down to "the world economy", particularly the UK economy, coming back to life after Covid, sucking in gas in particular.

As to lorry drivers, there is a shortage around the world, from Poland to the United States. And while that's true enough, Johnson adds that, "even in China they are short of lorry drivers".

That's quite an odd claim as the IRU says that China is the "least affected country in 2020", with only 4 percent of jobs open. But then, when you're Johnson, any old bollocks will do.

But then, if this is the best the Telegraph and Tory ministers can do, it's not surprising that we're such a mess. When it comes to the driver shortage, the problem has been known about for 15 years. Both industry and successive governments are to blame for the failure to mount an adequate driver training programme.

As to the shortage of properly equipped, overnight truck stops, one might suggest that this down to a composite of central government, local authority planning departments, and other agencies. Haulage firms are hardly in a position to make provision for a national network of suitable places.

With this sector, as with abattoir workers servicing pig producers, it is far too simplistic to assert that higher wages are the "magic bullet" which will solve all problems. As I noted yesterday with the meat trade, after fifty years of state interference (actually more, going back to WWII), the problems are too complex to be solved by the industry alone. Government intervention is needed.

All of this, though, is to no avail when it comes to sorting out the supply chain in time for Christmas. One suspects, therefore, that the anonymous "business leaders" have got the measure of the situation, with ministers "getting their excuses in early", and deflecting blame away from the government.

Probably, anyone still prepared to support Johnson will be prone to accepting government propaganda, while the Left is in the uncomfortable position of supporting the corporate fat-cats in their battles with government. All we can hope for is that there isn't a shortage of popcorn over Christmas.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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