Boris Johnson Pledges Transformed Economy for U.K.

MANCHESTER, England — Declaring that Britain would not go back to the “same old broken model” of the past, Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed on Tuesday to lead a radical transformation of the country’s economy to a future defined by highly skilled workers earning higher wages.

In a speech to a cheering crowd at his Conservative Party’s annual conference, Mr. Johnson said, “We are going to deal with the underlying issues of our economy and society — the problems that no government has had the guts to tackle, the long-term structural weaknesses in the U.K. economy.”

Projecting optimism but offering few details, Mr. Johnson sketched a vision of Britain on the cusp of historic change. He barely mentioned the spate of fuel and food shortages that have afflicted the country in recent weeks, raising them only as evidence of a rapidly recovering economy in transition.

“We are embarking now on a change of direction that has been long overdue in the U.K. economy,” Mr. Johnson said. “We are not going back to the same old broken model: low wages, low growth, low skills, and low productivity — all of it enabled, as a system, by uncontrolled immigration.”

Mr. Johnson devoted much of the speech to his marquee policy of “leveling up,” which aims to decrease the disparities between the economically disadvantaged northern parts of England and the more prosperous south.

“We have one of the most imbalanced societies and lopsided economies of all the richer countries,” Mr. Johnson said.

Mixing self-deprecating humor with literary references, gleeful jabs at the opposition, and a populist appeal to social issues, Mr. Johnson reinforced his status as the Conservative Party’s undisputed leader and all-purpose cheerleader.

At one point, he described the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, as Captain Hindsight, the skipper of a cruise ship that had been hijacked by Somali pirates. At another, the prime minister, who has six children with multiple partners, lamented Britain’s comparatively small population, despite, he said, what were his best efforts to add to the total.

Mr. Johnson appealed to social and cultural issues that resonate with the Conservative rank and file. He vowed to defend Britain’s history and to oppose revisionist interpretations of Conservative heroes like Winston Churchill.

Mr. Johnson also hailed Margaret Thatcher, another of his Conservative predecessors, whom he said would not have hesitated to take painful steps to revive the British economy as it emerged from the pandemic.

For all the references to Conservative icons, however, Mr. Johnson’s speech amounted to a remarkable repudiation of some of his party’s guiding principles and governance record.

The Conservatives have long been the party of business, yet Mr. Johnson, in effect, put the onus on businesses to break their addiction to a low-wage economy. The Conservatives have led the government since 2010, yet Mr. Johnson spoke of the last decade as though some another party had been in charge.

To many political analysts, Mr. Johnson appeared, in the post-pandemic, post-Brexit era, to be launching something new: a party that combines the free-spending, interventionist impulses of social democrats with the law and order, anti-immigration instincts of the hard-line Brexiteers who agitated to leave the European Union in 2016.

Mr. Johnson’s rhetorical acrobatics showcased a politician who has managed, time and again, to defy political gravity. But as Britain confronts painful adjustments, he faces a convergence of hostile trends that could test this high-wire act. Rising food and fuel prices are straining consumers; gas shortages have forced motorists to wait for hours to fill up their tanks.

Mr. Johnson has portrayed these challenges as growing pains — evidence of an economy awakening from the pandemic and remaking itself to reap the benefits of a high-wage, highly skilled future.

For ordinary people, however, the specter of fuel and food shortages as the autumn closes in harkens instead to the 1970s, and the period of strikes and soaring prices that newspapers called the “winter of discontent.”

A line for gas in Slough, west of London, last month. Many drivers have had to queue for hours.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

Mr. Johnson also tried to create a new dividing line with the opposition Labour Party, which he painted as welcoming mass uncontrolled immigration while the Conservatives seek to invest in training and better pay for British workers.

Since gaining power in 2019, Mr. Johnson has clothed his policies in the mantle of one of his predecessors, Mrs. Thatcher, who pushed through free-market reforms after the 1970s. Asked in an interview this week how Britain would deal with the immediate consequences of an economic transition that could take years, he echoed a phrase made famous by Mrs. Thatcher: “There is no alternative.”

But while Mr. Johnson has hailed Mrs. Thatcher as one of his role models, his comments dramatized the extent of his breach with her legacy. Under Mrs. Thatcher, the Conservative Party aligned itself closely with business.

That relationship was strained over Brexit, Mr. Johnson’s marquee project, which was opposed by big companies that took advantage of Europe’s massive single market.

While even his critics welcome the idea of moving away from a low-wage, low-skills economy, there could be pain ahead for many Britons if the government’s policies cause inflation to spike. Much of the fiscal stimulus the government injected into the economy to cushion the pandemic’s blow — such a compensation for people who lost wages after being sent home — has been wound down.

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