The UK prime minister has urged people to return to the workplace for “sound evolutionary reasons” in a disjointed speech to the UK’s largest employer group where he referenced Peppa Pig, made car noises and lost his notes.
Boris Johnson told the CBI conference on Monday that “Mother Nature does not like working from home”, adding to the pressure from officials and business leaders for staff to return to pre-pandemic working practices despite fears over rising Covid-19 cases this winter.
“There are some people who think that working habits have been remade by the pandemic and that everyone will be only working on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday . . . [but] I have my doubts,” he said. “I prophesise that people will come back to the office.”
Ministers have been keen to encourage people back to the offices in town and city centres in order to stimulate local economies. Some executives are starting to worry that the numbers returning to their offices have started to plateau after an initial surge in September.
The CBI conference this year is being spread over different venues, with Johnson speaking at a site in Newcastle. The prime minister’s sprawling speech saw him namecheck a visit to Peppa Pig World, compare himself to Moses and at one point lose his thread for 30 seconds.
Johnson also sought to mend bridges with the business community, which is still angry after he accused companies of being reliant on cheap foreign labour last month.
Relations between Johnson and business leaders have sometimes been strained, not least given his support for Brexit in 2016 against the wishes of many executives. In 2018, Johnson was reported to have said “fuck business” in response to concerns about a hard Brexit.
On Monday, he told the CBI that he has “never been anything other than business’ number one fan”.
But the prime minister faced questions from members of the audience over imminent rises in taxes which will fall on business, including a national insurance increase and a jump in corporation tax from 19 to 25 per cent in 2023.
“On corporation tax, on general tax on business, don’t forget we are still the lowest in the G7 . . . Does the chancellor want to go further and reduce burdens on taxpayers and business? Of course he does. But don’t forget we’ve been through a pandemic where we had to look after people to the tune of £407bn,” Johnson argued.
Johnson was also forced to defend his announcement last week that there would be deep cuts to the government’s rail programme to save tens of billions of pounds.
The Integrated Rail Plan, announced last Thursday, saw most of the eastern leg of the High Speed 2 line axed while a new line from Leeds to Manchester has been downgraded to a mix of new line and upgrades of old track.
Johnson told the conference that he had been disappointed by the reaction to his £96bn railway investment plan. He said that his “moral mission” was to tackle the “woeful” imbalance in productivity across the country and to level up different regions.
But CBI boss Tony Danker told the Financial Times that its northern members were “very upset” by the curtailing of investment in local services.
Simon Storer, chief executive of the Insulation Manufacturers Association, said after the event: “What a disappointing session — nothing but bluster and hot air.”
The prime minister gave an upbeat assessment of the UK’s economic prospects, saying that unemployment was much lower than expected while Britain was forecast to have the fastest economic growth in the G7.
“I remember mass unemployment and the misery and the drain of the human spirit,” he said, referring to the 1970s.
“I would much rather have our problems today which are fundamentally caused by a blip in global confidence.”
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