Panic at the pumps could herald a brave new Brexit order. I have doubts | Will hutton
Dcrossing France last Thursday was like driving in Britain – no worries about gasoline and no queues. The return to London was a sudden shift in another reality. One of the first duties of a government is to ensure that citizens can go about their daily business without hassle or anxiety. With an abundance of oil in refineries, this pain has never been necessary – we are experiencing a dismal failure of governance.
Brexit is clearly one of the reasons for the shortage of drivers and the annoying friction at our borders which translates into problems in food supply chains and supermarkets. More importantly, it was the very fear of ministers that early action would be seen as positive proof of the weaknesses of Brexit that crippled them so much.
Thus, the heads of road transport met on June 16 the young Minister of Transport, Baroness Vere, to ask for temporary visas for foreign drivers, a campaign to bring retired drivers back to work and another to remedy the problem. backlog of driving tests. But transport ministers do not trust the “Remoaner” road transport lobby, which last winter sharply criticized the difficulty of new Brexit border controls in getting goods in and out of Britain. In addition, each minister recalls the ruthless withdrawal of the Conservative whip of 21 colleagues in September 2019. Having pro-EU sympathies is a mark of Cain.
Vere knew that as the former executive director of the incumbent Tory campaign, she was viewed with suspicion and that Number 10 wanted the line maintained. The industry should pay better and recruit and train more UK drivers. Part of the aim of Brexit was to move from a low-wage, low-skill economy dependent on migrants from the EU. She closed the June meeting by telling leaders the government “didn’t want to cause panic”, without saying any panic six months after Brexit would be politically toxic.
Over the summer, the line held up even when the problems increased. On the evening of September 23, just as BP was closing some gas stations due to a shortage of tanker drivers, Home Secretary Priti Patel was celebrating with 25 other self-proclaimed “Spartans” – Conservative MPs who voted three times against Theresa May’s Brexit Compromise Agreements – at the Carlton Club. They applauded the toughest Brexit they’ve ever achieved, as well as Patel’s visa policy excluding low-wage immigrants. Boris Johnson, asked to create at least 20,000 visas to bring in foreign drivers to have a chance of dealing with the crisis, knows how much his political base supports Patel’s position on immigration. He did as little as possible, announcing 10,500 temporary three-month visas for tanker drivers and poultry workers, well aware of the looming turkey shortage set to ruin Christmas.
It was “the equivalent of throwing a thimble of water on a bonfire,” as Baroness McGregor-Smith, President of the British Chambers of Commerce, memorably put it. Today, belatedly, comes the news that 100 army tanker drivers will start on Monday, joined by 300 foreign drivers on specially extended visas until February. Vere eventually wrote to a million heavy truck license holders urging them to return to the industry. The thimble of water has turned into a bottle, but the campfire is showing all signs of extinction only slowly and already at the cost of a collapse in business confidence. Panic buying and loss of confidence are hard to reverse.
Of course, the government should have acted much more decisively, much sooner – and provided the public with accurate information. Precision and honesty are the best ways to calm fears. But there is remarkably little protest about his hesitation and boasting: a YouGov survey reports that only 23% of the population blame him and almost half blame the media.
One of the reasons is that Labor cannot embroil itself in the Brexit-induced procrastination with as much authenticity and force as it could and should; he supported the treaty and believes that the public is not yet ready to hear a plea for the EU. Still, most Leavers continue to support Brexit. They might get the impression that they voted for a higher wage, higher skill economy, propelled by lower immigration and that, bumpy as it is, it is now on the move. Advertised pay rates for heavy truck drivers have risen 12.8% this year alone, while working-class leave voters might like the spectacle of Tory ministers urging employers to pay better and train people.
And yet, truck drivers are only one sector. Immigration has always been more of a labor game than a wage game. For example, the Bank of England found that all immigration to the EU between 2004 and 2011 reduced wages in the semi-skilled and low-skilled service sector by less than 1% per year. Any impact was on the bottom 10% of employees and only then was slight. But what immigration has done is grow the economy: The annual output of an economy is the average number of hours worked multiplied by output per person-hour, multiplied by the labor force. Immigrants do not change investment or productivity, but they increase the number of people able to pick fruit, kill pigs, raise turkeys and drive trucks.
Without immigrants, the economy grows more slowly or contracts. A quarter of all UK companies, including half of all transport companies, say they cannot fill vacancies because EU applicants no longer apply. Their ability to pay higher wages is limited by what they can sell with profit margins; if they cannot employ people at affordable wages, then supermarket shelves are not stocked and gas station tanks are not replenished.
Without free movement of EU workers or a liberal visa policy, Britain faces a labor, mobility and skills crisis: there are not enough people in the right places with the right skills to maintain the production we are used to. The mismatch will eventually be resolved, the solution delayed by our chronically weak training system and housing shortage; the economy will be smaller, people will gradually acquire the necessary skills, but the dislocation will lead to shortages, queues or even rationing and very low growth.
At the same time, polls show a growing majority in favor of immigration. The open question in UK politics is whether Brexit can even work halfway before the public gives it up. The government’s actions betray its concern about the response. My guess, after this week, is that the moment when audiences start to stop believing is approaching and faster than you think.