Conservative Party Conference 2021 analysis: Why the Tories’ talk on wages could spell big trouble for Labour

The government could capitalise on the current crises by upping wages for the lowest paid, but will they do it?

Say what you will about them, but the Conservative party knows how to get behind a message and stick to a line.

In the days leading up to the party’s conference in Manchester, one topic has been pushed front and centre by Tory ministers on their media rounds: wages.

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Amid a cost of living crisis which is already hitting many households hard, having likely not yet even peaked, it’s clear to see the relevance of the subject.

The crisis might at first seem like a major threat to the Conservative government, who were warned about many of the contributing factors months ago and have just taken £1,000 per year away from the poorest families in the country.

But Johnson’s calculation seems to be that he can take a moment which might have been his undoing and use it to springboard his government to new heights of popularity.

The outline of this potential shift in direction began to form when Johnson appeared on Andrew Marr on Sunday, urging the road haulage industry to increase wages for drivers.

The PM argued that the current issues with HGV drivers and shortages across many sectors are essentially necessary growing pains, as the country transitions to a new post-Brexit, high-wage and high-skills model.

Johnson believes he has found a key dividing line between him and Keir Starmer’s Labour, after the former Director of Public Prosecutions said he would offer significantly more visas to foreign workers to alleviate the current supply issues - a move the PM is characterising as a return to ‘unrestricted immigration’.

If appeals to business are the extent of the action behind Johnson’s wages rhetoric, then the current crisis will almost certainly inflict lasting damage on his government, as people on low incomes get caught between rising living costs and the withdrawal of support.

But, at a time when people can feel the squeeze, a genuinely interventionist move to increase the minimum wage would be well-received among working people.

And if the PM is able to combine a tanks-on-Labour’s-lawn move like increasing the minimum wage with some classic anti-immigration red meat for his party’s base, he could end up with a potent political strategy.

There are obvious pitfalls though, not least that Johnson’s argument rests on a strong criticism of the kind of an economy that his party presided over for the last decade.

This will not only leave him open to obvious external criticism, but also to challengers in his party whose public pronouncements are more in line with the views of the Tory faithful.

Plus, to increase the minimum wage while at the same time hiking up tax and removing support in the form of the Covid uplift would be very much taking from working people with one hand and giving back with the other.

But, for many voters who’ve traditionally seen the Conservatives as a party who take from working people with one hand and give to the rich with the other, this would at least be an improvement.