The golden rule of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives is that an otherwise disparate party is at its most happy when it’s talking about Brexit and its consequences.
At times of stress, it’s the trump card the PM routinely reaches for. Given the stage of the country, expect it to feature heavily during the party conference.
As the prime minister heads to Manchester in what would conventionally be an extraordinarily troublesome backdrop – fuel shortages, supply line disruption, containers mounting up at ports, food shortages for months, lack of medicines in pharmacies culling pigs where they live rather than in slaughter houses due to a lack of labour meaning they become pet food not pork – he will seek to turn this to his advantage.
Mr Johnson wants to boil this down into an argument over migration he believes he can win – the Tories will continue to control numbers coming in from overseas in the hope competition drives up wages, Labour would let in more workers from abroad to fill the vacancies, undercutting domestic workers.
It is a bold gambit, not without its risks. No matter the argument doesn’t fix the problems at hand or fill empty shelves. No matter that his government has had to increase visa numbers and relax conditions to entice migrant labour twice in a fortnight. No matter that Labour is not actually proposing a return to free movement or unlimited migration, though he is helped by their line being inconsistent. No matter that some economists would argue constraining labour supply when inflation is rising could lead to a stagnant economy.
The argument over the involvement of Brexit will be nuanced, and he won’t say the shortages are a consequence of it. Instead he will make clear Brexit allowed the ending of free movement which stops overseas low-wage migration being part of the solution under his government.
Mr Johnson believes he has found a politically-winning dividing line up to a 2023 or 2024 election, so expect to hear variations of it from the conference podium and fringe events through the week. If he can show by the time of the next election wages have risen, he believes voters will thank him.
The prime minister’s business secretary gave a foretaste of the argument in a pre-conference interview with Conservative Home.
Kwasi Kwarteng put the supply line crisis, flashing amber and red in different sectors in the briefings for minister, down to a “transition” as the UK “rejects a low-wage high immigration economic model”.
He goes on: “You’re quite right to say people are resisting that, particularly employers that were benefiting from an influx of labour that could keep wages low,” in remarks that will leave many industry associations reeling.
And what if the shortages cause disruption? “All you can do, other than take various emergency measures, is tough it out,” said Mr Kwarteng.
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Faced with a crisis, this prime minister loves nothing more than to try and “tough it out”, so expect little backing down at conference, but if Christmas retail is disrupted in the way some predict, it could still be a choppy autumn for the Conservatives. But first he wants to use the extraordinary platform which Manchester affords.
The prime minister is entering Tory conference in as strong a position as any Conservative leader since David Cameron in October 2015. The Conservatives are eight percentage points of Labour in YouGov’s latest poll. The party enjoys huge leads in everyone over 50, with three times as many over-65s voting Tory as Labour. Almost nobody who voted Tory in 2019 says they will vote Labour now (at 2% this figure is within the margin of error of zero) with four times as many voters deserting to Richard Tice’s right-wing Reform party.
That does not mean that Mr Johnson is in an unassailable position. Slowly Sir Keir’s ratings have been catching up with Mr Johnson’s in the YouGov tracker. Some 52% said they disapprove of the government compared to 26% approving. It would not take much volatility for ‘red wall’ MPs, elected because Labour got the worst defeat since 1935 in the 2019 general election, to start to wobble. Politics can spiral.
This is not happening yet, and almost certainly will not happen in the confines of the Manchester Conference Centre. Tory MPs I’ve spoken are asking little more than that the prime minister empathises with cost of living pressures in his speech. Mr Johnson’s reshuffle confirmed he rules his party now, beholden to no one, hearing little meaningful dissent and happy to promote potential future rivals who can all compete to succeed.
So expect Manchester to be an Instagram beauty pageant, of Rishi Sunak’s diffident one-liners pitted against Liz Truss intoning to the ideologically faithful, all beautifully presented in picture form. Try and spot the work being put into the brands of people who consider themselves contenders to the Johnson throne while also waiting for Michael Gove to hit the dancefloor again.
With the lobbyists cooing complements and the faithful cheering, the Tory party conference is a long way from the real world. Mr Johnson will want to enjoy it.