On the day he slashes £1,040 a year from the incomes of 6 million of the UK’s poorest people, Boris Johnson will insist that his “levelling up” agenda is the key to bringing hope and opportunity to left-behind communities around the country.
The prime minister will deliver his keynote speech to the Conservative Party’s annual conference against a chorus of protest from charities warning that the £20-a-week cut in universal credit coming into effect on Wednesday will drag half a million more people, including 200,000 children, below the poverty line and inflict hardship on millions more.
Mr Johnson will tell delegates in Manchester that his administration has the “guts” to deal with the biggest issues facing the country.
But after more than a week of queuing at empty petrol pumps, sharp spikes in energy costs and warnings from retailers that the country faces shortages of food and other goods in the run-up to Christmas, the prime minister denied that the UK was in crisis.
In response to concern that his demand for business to ramp up wages to attract recruits to shortage occupations like HGV drivers risks pushing up inflation and triggering rises in interest rates, he replied: “There is no alternative.”
And he laughed off warnings from farmers that they will soon be forced to cull and destroy as many as 120,000 pigs because of a lack of workers in meat-processing plants after Brexit ended free movement for EU staff, joking that the animals would have died anyway to provide bacon sandwiches.
The NFU’s Tom Bradshaw said the PM’s jokes showed “no empathy at all” to desperate farmers and “a lack of respect for what is going on out there”.
“I’m afraid the cull has started today,” Mr Bradshaw told Times Radio. “This is a tragic waste of food, which has never happened before. It’s absolutely needless, and we have been highlighting this issue to government for many months. There’s 120,000 pigs backed up on farms and if we don’t get a solution then it’s just an absolute disaster.”
On the final day of the first in-person Conservative conference since the Covid pandemic, Mr Johnson will attempt to distance himself from Tory predecessors like David Cameron and Theresa May, saying that the UK has suffered from “decades of dither and drift” under previous governments.
Implicitly condemning all earlier Conservative administrations, he will say that his “reforming government” is “dealing with the biggest underlying issues of our economy and society, the problems that no government has had the guts to tackle before”.
He will try to reassure the largely southern Conservative delegates that his government’s focus on “levelling up” disadvantaged areas in the north and Midlands will also be good for affluent Tory heartlands by reducing pressure for development in the leafy shires.
Providing opportunities for aspirational individuals to prosper in their home areas rather than feel forced into moving to employment hotspots will “take the pressure off parts of the overheating southeast, while simultaneously offering hope and opportunity to those areas that have felt left behind”, he will say.
Mr Johnson will say that, after completing the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, he is now embarking on “a change of direction that has been long overdue in the UK economy” to create a “high-wage, high-skill, high-productivity economy”.
He will again accuse business leaders of contributing to the wage stagnation of the past decade of Tory austerity by relying on cheap migrant labour rather than investing in the innovation and skills of the homegrown workforce.
Resisting appeals for relaxation of the post-Brexit visa regime to resolve the current labour shortages, he will vow that the UK will not return to “the same old broken model” or “reach for the same old lever of uncontrolled migration to keep wages low”.
“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 or machinery they need to do their jobs,” Mr Johnson will say.
Levelling up was “the greatest project that any government can embark on” and will “work for the whole country”, he will say.
“There are all kinds of improvements you can make to people’s lives without diminishing anyone else, and they are the tools of levelling up,” Mr Johnson will say.
“If you want the idea in a nutshell it is that you will find talent, genius, flair, imagination, enthusiasm – all of them – evenly distributed around this country, but opportunity is not, and it is our mission as Conservatives to promote opportunity with every tool we have.”
Mr Johnson’s speech comes after new Ipsos Mori polling which found that just 17 per cent of voters think the Conservatives are “concerned about people in real need in Britain” and only 22 per cent think the Tories look after the interest of “people like me”.
A new survey by Savanta ComRes found that a majority of Conservative supporters fear the party will pay an electoral price for the wave of cost-of-living issues hitting the UK, with 53 per cent saying continued issues with supply chains will worsen their chances and the same number saying that large increases in gas and electricity price would harm them at the ballot box.
The anti-poverty Joseph Rowntree Foundation said that Wednesday’s removal of the £20-a-week uplift to UC payments will bring the main rate of out-of-work support to its lowest level ever as a proportion of average earnings and suck £6bn out of the economies of disadvantaged areas.
The think tank’s deputy director Helen Barnard said the PM was “abandoning millions to hunger and hardship with his eyes wide open” while Save the Children chief executive Gwen Hines said the move would “devastate families up and down the country”. Both urged chancellor Rishi Sunak to reinstate it in his Budget later this month.
“People we work with tell us they’ve been relying on this £20 lifeline to buy essentials like food and clothing for themselves and their children,” said Ms Hines. Without it, tens of thousands more children are facing a cold and hungry winter.”
Oxfam GB’s chief executive Danny Sriskandarajah said: “Removing this safety net, despite warnings from across the political spectrum, will cause immense hardship to families who are already barely keeping their heads above water. Many people who rely on universal credit are carers, both unpaid and paid, who contribute so much to our society for little reward or recognition.”
And the National Residential Landlords Association said the UC cut would hit almost 1.5 million renters across England and Wales, many of them already struggling to pay high levels of arrears which have built up during the pandemic.
“Today’s cut to universal credit is a short-sighted move that will only serve to worsen this ongoing rent debt crisis,” said the association’s Meera Chindooroy.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Reynolds said: “Any promise the prime minister makes to raise the living standards of people in this country rings hollow while this cut goes ahead.
“Under this government prices are up, bills are up and taxes are up, yet the prime minister has pressed ahead with the biggest cut to social security ever in the face of widespread opposition.”
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