Despite gasoline shortages and empty shelves, Labor is adrift and Johnson could press the nuclear button on the Northern Ireland protocol.
At my local gas station, a group of young men suddenly appeared, dressed in high-visibility vests, instructing motorists in the art of nose-to-tail stuck charging. Each pump has three nozzles, for diesel and gasoline – with careful driving and shouted instructions, two cars can use one at the same time.
This does not prevent the line from moving back 30 meters in the roadway, the hazard lights flash. After a while, the men in the jackets flip the makeshift sign from “no gasoline” to “no gasoline”, and the commotion ends. This is what happens when a country runs out of 100,000 truck and tanker drivers and the government says “don’t panic”.
In the supermarket next door there are rows of empty shelves. Fresh vegetables are a problem, fruit is a bigger problem, and the remaining flowers look sad and withered. The main cause of the food shortage is said to be the lack of carbon dioxide for processing, itself a side effect of soaring natural gas prices.
But the absence of 100,000 trained truck drivers does not help. For the anecdote – everything becomes anecdotal in a crisis like this – big trucking companies are raising driver salaries to the equivalent of a senior teacher and driving out entire departments full of local government garbage truck drivers . Meanwhile, in all the other stores or pubs, a scribbled note is stuck to the window: “we are hiring”.
How did Britain end up on the wrong side of an energy security crisis and a labor shortage at the same time? Before we can pronounce the short answer, we must, in the name of objectivity, admit the overall contributing factors.
There is an increase in demand driven by the recovery from the pandemic – a recovery in which central banks have refused to stop stimulating prices and funding public spending. This has resulted in global supply shortages of goods as diverse as silicon chips and natural gas. Meanwhile, the spot price for shipping a 40ft container from Shanghai to Rotterdam increased by 535% in one year.
But the acute impact of these trends on Britain is mainly due to ‘Brexit’ – with government recklessness and decades of deregulation.
Last week we saw retail energy providers with millions of customers going bankrupt. Their customers are shifted to bigger, more expensive suppliers, and as winter fuel expenses begin, that alone will drive inflation. The same goes for the wage increases that employers give to anyone who can drive a truck, which in turn will trigger increases among the precarious young workforce who can suddenly choose their jobs.
Not a normal country
In a normal country, the popularity of the government would take a hit. But not in Brittany. The crisis is presented with glee by Conservative MPs as the result of the end of âcheap foreign laborâ. The subtext: Hold on, resist the temptation to issue unlimited visas to skilled European workers and there will be a permanent rise in wage rates in the semi-skilled economy. As for the shortages of gas, food, gasoline and manufactured goods, they are, as always with Boris Johnson, someone else’s fault.
Help our mission to advance political debates
Social Europe is a independent editor and we believe in content that is available for free. For this model to be sustainable, we depend on the solidarity of our loyal readers – we depend on you. Thank you for supporting our work by becoming a member of Social Europe for less than 5 euros per month. Thank you very much for your support!
The polls tell a story of growing discontent with the performance of the Johnson government. However, this is combined with a stubborn refusal to break with the conservatives, especially among their âC2DEâ supporters (petty bourgeoisie and workers), for whom Brexit was supposed to settle everything.
Among less affluent and less educated voters polled by YouGov, for example, general discontent with the Johnson government is now run to 47 percent, down from just 27 percent approval, which is similar to what it was before the “vaccine rebound” tied the numbers at 36% in May.
Significantly, 52% of the same voters now think the Tories are mismanaging Brexit itself. And Johnson’s approval rating has been deeply negative since mid-2020, when a string of pandemic-handling hiccups and scandals began to take their toll.
But the intention of the voters put on again the Conservatives well ahead of Labor. Even though the Conservatives’ electoral support has waned over the summer, they are still at 40 percent, compared to 34 percent for Labor and 21 percent combined for the openly anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats and Greens and the Scottish and Welsh nationalists.
Britain retains a sizable, suburban and conservative middle class, with the elderly, property owners and private pension recipients at the heart of Conservative support. As long as state retirees, homeowners and elderly, of former industrial working-class towns continue to block with them, they can provide a solid 40 percent base of support for conservatism. This is spread across all constituencies, unlike that of Labor and other progressive voters, who are concentrated in cities but outvoted in cities under Britain’s first past the post electoral system.
For Labor, it is already an opportunity that has come and gone. The gas crisis is clearly the result of Britain’s departure from the integrated European energy market, as well as the neglect of domestic storage capacity. The shortage of drivers is a direct consequence of the abandonment of freedom of movement by Brexit.
Yet Labor leader Keir Starmer used his party’s annual conference in Brighton last week to renege on his pledge to nationalize energy, water, railways and postal services. This, he said, would only be done if it represented “good value for money”.
Meanwhile, his MPs have carefully avoided linking the crisis to Brexit, fearing to alienate the elderly and social-conservative voters they need to get back to work. As for freedom of movement, it died as a Labor commitment for the same reason.
Throw money on problems
But Brexit is, if not the root cause, then the accelerator that has focused all aspects of the global supply chain crisis on the UK economy. How long will it take before the policy changes?
Right now the government is solving all the problems by throwing money at them. A Â£ 32bn black hole in health and social services must be stopped with a sudden mortgaged tax. The collapse of a major rail franchise was accompanied by instantaneous and temporary nationalization. After a week of procrastination, the armed forces will now be used to drive tankers to besieged gas stations.
But at some point, the racism, xenophobia, and anti-‘wake-up’ rhetoric that binds Johnson to his plebeian base won’t fill the gas tank, put sandwiches in the kids’ lunchbox, and Hundreds of small businesses will not stop bending under the pressure of rising wages and input costs.
It’s like a matter of time. Crisis management can have two results: fight against the dynamics of crisis until submission or worsen it all, crises are rarely simply stabilized. If, by the end of October, we still face slippery shortages, from fuel to food to labor, and government popularity continues to decline, a cathartic break must ensue.
I fear the answer chosen by Johnson, long dragged, will unilaterally withdraw the UK from Northern Ireland’s Brexit Protocol, triggering a major diplomatic crisis with the European Union and the United States (where it is linked to concerns over the survival of the Belfast Agreement). To rationalists and technocrats who watch it all in horror from across the Channel, it will sound crazy, but it would follow the logic of everything Johnson has done since taking over as Tory leader.
Then Labor Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, returning to similar national conditions during the 1978-1979 “winter of discontent”, was said to have replied: “Crisis? What crisis? (In fact, it was a hostile newspaper headline.) Johnson is a politician who can only survive and revel in the crisis. His motto could be âCrisis? No more crisis! ‘