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Anti-poverty campaigners accused Boris Johnson of lacking the “guts” to tackle the cost-of-living crisis facing millions of British families, after he delivered his high-profile speech to his party’s annual conference without mentioning the £6bn welfare cut happening the same day.
The prime minister’s 45-minute address was branded “vacuous” and “the most out-of-touch display in decades” as he found time to launch a sustained attack on Labour rival Keir Starmer, praise the return of beavers to the wild and boast of his own “radical optimism”, but offered no solutions to the issues of soaring food and energy prices and petrol shortages.
The solitary policy announced in what is generally the most significant speech of the PM’s year – a £3,000 “levelling up premium” for maths and science teachers in disadvantaged areas – was swiftly revealed to be a retread of a similar scheme scrapped by Mr Johnson last year.
The removal of the £20-a-week “uplift” to Universal Credit which took effect a few hours before Mr Johnson’s speech will strip £1,040 a year from the incomes of around six million unemployed people and low-paid workers, with charities warning that half a million families and 200,000 children would be dragged below the poverty line as a result.
The Tory peer Philippa Stroud – who helped design Universal Credit while working with Iain Duncan Smith – said: “This is a really bleak day for many families up and down the country.”
Mr Johnson’s address also came as experts warned the cap on energy prices will have to rise, at an estimated annual cost of £400 for millions of families, after the price of natural gas spiked to a new record, sparking concerns of a 1970s-style cost-of-living crunch.
Meanwhile, a cull of 120,000 pigs began after farmers were forced to destroy them because staff shortages at processing plants made it impossible to sell them for meat. As well, the petrol crisis entered its 14th day, with around one in eight independent forecourts in London and the southeast still empty of fuel.
The prime minister claimed to be launching Conservatives on “the greatest project that any government can embark on”, using infrastructure investment, skills training and relocated jobs to “level up” disadvantaged parts of the UK.
He trashed the legacies of Tory predecessors David Cameron and Theresa May, saying that no government before his had “the guts” to tackle the most deep-seated problems affecting British society.
But business leaders warned that his plans were “a pathway to higher prices”, after he insisted they should use higher pay to attract homegrown workers rather than rely on cheap migrant labour.
Describing the loss of the UC uplift as a “grim day” for families of workers on modest wages, like hairdressers, care workers and shop assistants, the policy director of charity Action for Children, Imran Hussain, said: “The prime minister talks about having the guts to tackle big societal problems. We want this government to have the guts to cancel the cut and throw working families a lifeline.
“Make no mistake, families on modest wages keeping their heads above water are going to be pushed under by this.”
Boris Johnson might as well have made that speech in a parallel universe. Nothing for struggling families facing Universal Credit cuts and soaring bills, nothing for businesses on the brink of bankruptcy and nothing for our nation’s carers. Totally out of touch.
— Ed Davey MP 🔶🇪🇺 (@EdwardJDavey) October 6, 2021
Katie Schmuecker of the anti-poverty Joseph Rowntree Foundation said: “The prime minister has not had the guts to look the millions of people whose incomes are being cut today in the eye and tell them how they are expected to get through the year ahead.”
Setting out his hopes for the long-promised “levelling up” agenda – due to be detailed in a white paper by the end of this year – Mr Johnson promised delegates that by investing in new homes, jobs and infrastructure in disadvantaged areas, he would solve the UK’s long-standing productivity problems by cutting the cost of housing, commuting and communications.
Levelling up was built on the principle that “you will find talent, genius, flair, imagination, enthusiasm everywhere in this country, all of them evenly distributed, but opportunity is not”, he said. “And it is our mission as Conservatives to promote opportunity with every tool we have.”
Supporting the creation of jobs outside the hotspot areas of the southeast and the cities with new rail and road links, gigabit broadband and large-scale housing development would allow people to build careers and lives in their home areas rather than being forced to move elsewhere to find prosperity, he said. This would in itself drive greater investment, improved growth and lower taxes.
Mr Johnson evoked the memory of Margaret Thatcher to justify his decision to increase National Insurance by 1.25 per cent to reduce record NHS waiting lists and fund social care reform in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has brought the overall tax burden to its highest as a share of national income since the Second World War.
The tax-cutting Conservative totem “would not have ignored this meteorite that has just crashed through the public finances”, he said, but would have accepted that borrowing to deal with the consequences of coronavirus would just mean higher interest rates and taxes down the line.
He told the largely southern Tory delegates at the Manchester conference that boosting the north and Midlands would take development pressure off the wealthy towns and villages of the leafy shires and save them from losing beautiful countryside views to “ugly new homes”.
Mr Johnson promised to unleash the “unique spirit” which he said could be found in British people, from NHS nurses to entrepreneurs, in order to “build back better” after the Covid pandemic.
He sought to recruit the England football team – along with tennis star Emma Raducanu and the GB Olympics team – into his vision of national unity despite members of his own cabinet suggesting it was right to boo them if they took the knee at the Euro 2020 tournament earlier this year.
In a speech heavy with jokes and wordplay, Johnson branded Labour rival Sir Keir Starmer as “a seriously rattled bus conductor, pushed this way and that by a Corbynite mob of sellotape-spectacled sans culottes”. He came close to accusing his opposition of condoning drug use, claiming that Labour’s policies were dreamt up in the “powder rooms of north London dinner parties”.
The PM was accused of a “bare-faced lie” when he claimed that credit for the development of the UK’s AstraZeneca vaccine should go to “capitalism”, despite it being developed at publicly-funded Oxford University, using public investment, and was deployed by the NHS.
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) October 6, 2021
He claimed that Brexit had enabled the UK to create its own vaccination programme, stop football’s European Super League, develop freeports and join the Aukus military alliance even though all would have been possible under EU membership.
But he did not address the shortage of labour in the food-processing and farming industries which has created the spectre of mass culls of pigs, fruit rotting in the fields and empty shelves in the run up to Christmas.
Unions challenged the PM’s claim that wages were now rising for the low-paid, pointing to the pay freeze imposed on millions of public sector staff and rising inflation which, at three per cent, is eating into the value of settlements for workers such as nurses.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “If Boris Johnson was serious about levelling up Britain, he wouldn’t be slashing universal credit in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis.
“The PM is in no position to lecture people on wages when he is holding down the pay of millions of key workers in the public sector.”
CBI director general Tony Danker warned that “ambition on wages without action on investment and productivity is ultimately just a pathway for higher prices”.
Labour party chair Anneliese Dodds said: “Boris Johnson’s vacuous speech summed up this whole Conservative conference. The PM talked more about beavers than he did about action to tackle the multiple crises facing working people up and down the country.
“Far from getting a grip on the spiralling costs of energy, fuel and food, the Tories are actively making things worse – cutting incomes today for six million families by over £1,000 a year.”
Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey branded the speech “the most out-of-touch display by a prime minister in decades”.
“The Conservative Party conference may as well be happening in a parallel universe,” said Sir Ed. “Johnson pretends that somehow long queues at the petrol station and empty shelves in the supermarket are all part of his cunning plan and blames anyone he can for the wreckage he is causing.”
It also won a cool response from right-wing think-tanks for giving the state a big role in driving and directing economic growth.
Matthew Lesh of the free-market Adam Smith Institute said: “Boris’s rhetoric was bombastic but vacuous and economically illiterate. This was an agenda for levelling down to a centrally-planned, high-tax, low-productivity economy.”
Mark Littlewood, director general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, added: “Boris Johnson’s rhetoric is always optimistic and enterprising, but insofar as there were actual policies behind it, they seemed to involve yet more state intervention and spending.”