Boris Johnson’s Autumn of Discontent

Britain’s Tories are losing their reputation for competence.

By the Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal

Catpion courtesy by the Wall Street Journal

It’s hard to believe it’s less than two years since U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a historic electoral mandate on a platform of getting Brexit done and unleashing Britain’s economic dynamism. It’s also hard to recall the last time anything went right for him, leaving his Conservatives in a precarious spot as they hold their annual convention this week.

Failures are accumulating. For the past week it’s been gas lines as fuel companies struggle to deliver gasoline and diesel to filling stations. The main culprit appears to be a shortage of truck drivers, a common theme in many countries. But it’s worse in Britain owing to post-Brexit immigration restrictions on drivers from Eastern Europe and tax and other policies that discourage those already in the country from staying.

Britain is also faring worse even than the rest of Europe with energy shortages and rising prices. The U.K. liberalized retail energy supply years ago but lags in new power generation. Now retail suppliers are squeezed by higher wholesale prices for gas and electricity and many are going under. This may force millions of households to pay higher rates as winter arrives. Supermarkets have run low on milk and other essentials, and the supply of turkeys and toys for Christmas is in jeopardy.

Mr. Johnson’s administration is at sea about how to respond. The government considered, then delayed, calling in the military to deliver fuel. London belatedly announced it would issue temporary visas for truck drivers, but the Times of London reports only 27 fuel-tanker drivers from Europe had applied as of Monday. Ministers are resisting bailouts for energy retailers, but they want to saddle households with even higher prices with new environmental levies on home gas to reduce CO2 emissions.

Ministers also have suggested supply shortages could be resolved by paying more. Gee, why didn’t businesses think of that? Some supermarket chains and hauliers are doing so. But absent bigger boosts to productivity across the economy, this will push up inflation that hit 3% year-on-year in August.

None of this inspires confidence as the British economy enters a challenging new phase. Last week saw the end of the government’s pandemic fiscal support that subsidized wages for millions of unemployed workers. It had to end eventually after Mr. Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak allowed it to run long past the worst of the pandemic.

Yet these workers are now unleashed on an economy hobbled by Brexit-induced disorder and tied up in red tape that should have ended when Britain left the European Union. They and their employers also face higher payroll taxes to fund more social-welfare spending.

The one thing going right for Mr. Johnson is his political opposition. The Labour Party’s convention last week was marked by internecine feuding between economic moderates and leftists and a culture-war kerfuffle over who can have a cervix.

That allows Mr. Johnson to present himself as the least risky leader, and polls still show the Tories with an advantage in public opinion. But for how long? One of the Conservatives’ great advantages has been a reputation for competence, which Mr. Johnson is squandering. Voters may soon want to hear something more than wooly social-care promises and costly green pledges.

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