Playing Politics: The Fuel Shortage is an Avoidable Crisis

BY JUDE WILKINSON

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, seen here at a Covid Briefing in September 2021, has received criticism for his Government's handling of the recent fuel crisis.


We’ve all seen the images of drivers desperately pouring fuel into plastic bottles, buckets and containers of various sorts. Long queues and empty pumps have forced many to work from home, others to resort to alternative forms of transport. In any other time, the worst fuel crisis since the 1970s would have precipitated political turmoil; after two years of near-permanent crisis, though, aside from some obligatory panic-buying, the shortage has hardly shifted the national mood, which remains jaded and fatigued. Of course this would happen.


Merely one symptom of a wider supply-crisis, the shortage has been accompanied by empty shelves, the sight of which now seem vaguely familiar. The worst predictions of project fear didn’t appear suddenly, rather they lingered and finally pounced, like an angry, semi-mythical gorilla. Emerging out of the mists of our past, retribution has arrived, rearing its supply-disrupting head.


Whether an inevitable consequence of leaving the world’s largest single market, or just a confluence of badly timed ‘events’, the phrase ‘fuel shortage' is itself unhelpful. There is no shortage of fuel, only one of drivers. Why exactly we don’t have enough drivers is broadly synonymous with labour shortages in the wider economy. Brexit is clearly a factor: as well as introducing more bureaucracy, the tone it sent to immigrants working in the UK was highly unwelcoming.


The political climate surrounding immigration, I would argue, has had a far bigger impact than increased red tape. It isn’t easy to get a post-Brexit work visa, but the fact is that fewer people are applying in the first place. Instead of trying to attract global talent, successive British administrations have pursued anti-immigration rhetoric to exploit the economic and cultural divisions of the electorate. If the Johnson, or May, or Cameron government had been realistic about the dangers of a labour shortage since 2016, they could have taken the opportunity to encourage a sea-change in our cultural attitudes, recognising the valuable contribution of immigrants, simplifying the work-visa application process, and promising increased protection for those with families.


Instead, the incumbent Home Secretary recently announced the introduction of a points-based system. This, ironically, is something we’ve already got in place, and we’ve had in place for over ten years. Migration experts warned of increased complexity in an already labyrinthine system, whilst others noted the worrying fall in successful work-visa applications. The number collapsed from 160,000 in June 2018 to just 100,000 by June 2019 (before migration from the UK is taken into account).


Just ten, fifteen years ago, immigration was in the hundreds of thousands, but now just a paltry few hundred have signed up for the government’s temporary HGV driver visa scheme. Of these applications, just twenty have been processed at the time of writing. To put this in context, the Road Haulage Association says that 100,000 more drivers are needed to meet demand, and they’ve been warning of a shortage for several years now.


Moreover, the driver shortage is quite unique in that there is no amount of deregulation which could deal with the crisis as much as rejoining the European Union. Ironic, then, that David Frost preferred hard Brexit as ‘only form of Brexit that allowed us freedom to experiment and freedom to act’. This comes from a government whose main solution is to re-create the freedoms which existed before the referendum. And they didn’t relax the visa system, or the restrictions on foreign haulier deliveries, because they had any choice - they did it because the alternative was plunging the UK into the worst supply-side crisis since the 1970s. What sort of freedom is that?


One suspects that the form of freedom which Mr Frost is referring to is hardly the freedom of benevolent policy-makers, but the freedom of a subsection of business. Hardly the flourishing of manufacturing, more the ability of financial services to operate in an environment with light-touch regulation. Not the freedom of workers, more the ability to avoid European standards on tax avoidance and human rights.


And when Rishi Sunak announced a cut to Universal Credit, even though the Covid-19 crisis brutally exposed the impact of austerity on public services over the last decade, the message was clear: the Conservative party is an anti-inflation party, until it pursues a patently nativist agenda. The Conservative party is pro-growth, until it prefers to satisfy a narrow socio-political base. The Conservative party has learned from austerity, and Brexit, and the economic turmoil it has created, until it insists that the solution to these problems is more anti-immigration rhetoric, more deregulation, and more austerity. Has it learned from the last decade? Possibly not.


Image - Flickr (Number 10)