Boris Johnson is treating businesses as the “bogeymen” and unfairly blaming them for shortages in their industries, a supermarket boss has said.
The Prime Minister has been heavily condemned by business leaders following his speech to the Conservative Party conference on Wednesday over what they claimed was a lack of a coherent economic plan as labour shortages hit supply chains, leading to empty shelves and queues at petrol stations.
Mr Johnson said he was setting out the “difficult” process of reshaping the British economy and defended his strategy of restricting the supply of cheap foreign labour after Brexit, insisting his new approach would ultimately create a “low-tax economy”.
But businesses leaders have criticised his approach, with many arguing restricting migration could lead to higher inflation and increased costs for consumers.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said on Thursday that opening up the country to more foreign workers “doesn’t actually solve the long-term problem”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The way you do that is by upskilling and reskilling and what the Prime Minister said in his speech is skills, skills, skills.”
However Richard Walker – managing director of Iceland and a Leave voter – said “tough rhetoric is just quite simply not helpful” to struggling businesses.
He told Today: “I don’t think it’s particularly helpful at the moment. Business is dealing with so much and so many different crises which has all compounded at once.
“Pointing the finger and choosing us as the bogeymen for issues such as HGV driver shortages – which is multifaceted and systemic – is simply not helpful.”
Mr Zahawi denied the Conservatives – traditionally seen as the party of business – are blaming firms.
Asked on Sky News whether the Tories are “on a warpath with business”, Mr Zahawi said: “I don’t agree with you.
“What I would say to everybody is let’s work together.
“We have seen retailers who invested in technology and have done really well. Others like Topshop and Topman didn’t make that investment and haven’t done so well.
— Adam Smith Institute (@ASI) October 6, 2021
“We’ve seen SMEs take advantage (of) £100 billion of grants and loans to support SMEs. That is what this Government is doing to help business.
“Let’s do this together. Let’s produce that high-wage, high-skill economy, because it is do-able.”
Mr Zahawi told Today that in sectors such as retail and distribution, businesses are “moving in a direction that Boris is championing”.
Citing a large supplier of fruit and vegetables in his constituency which is doing well, he said: “They’re investing in automation and having obviously also (to) invest in their people, to upskill them, and reskill them to work with the automation that they’re introducing.
“The ones that are doing well are investing in their people and in automation.”
The Federation of Small Businesses criticised Mr Johnson’s 45-minute conference speech, saying Labour, and not the Conservatives, are the only party with a “pro-small business policy”.
Free market think tank the Adam Smith Institute described the PM’s address as “bombastic but vacuous and economically illiterate”, while Conservative think tank Bright Blue said there was “no inspiring new vision or policy”.
Asked who the party of business is, Mr Walker said: “I would still very much hope it’s the Conservatives and of course they’ve got the history there, but it is frustrating and I think no-one is taking a step back and looking at the cumulative kind of impacts of all these different issues on business.
“Iceland is a relatively big company and we will get through it, but of course it’s not the case for a lot of smaller businesses, businesses without cash reserves.
“And I think, you know, this is a moment where tough rhetoric is just quite simply not helpful.”