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26 September 2021

Will the HGV driver shortage lead to new rows over Brexit and immigration?

The cabinet is divided over the problem – and so, quietly, is Labour.

By Stephen Bush and Anoosh Chakelian

Round one to Grant Shapps. The Transport Secretary has won a decisive internal battle as far as the government’s efforts to tackle shortages of fuel and other goods – the first direct consequence of the shortage of HGV (heavy goods vehicle) drivers – are concerned. Shapps wanted to loosen immigration rules to allow more HGV drivers into the UK to fill the growing number of vacancies. But Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, favoured higher wages.

The dispute is, superficially, a Remain-Leave re-run. Shapps, a Remainer, wanted to open the UK up to a greater level of immigration from the continent to ease the shortage. Kwarteng, a Leaver, wanted business to respond to the new market pressures by increasing wages. The reality is, however more complex, not least because Shapps has always been heavily preoccupied with sovereignty, opposing Theresa May’s Brexit deal because he thought the UK should choose either to be fully in, or fully outside the structures of the European Union, both of which he thought gave the UK more autonomy than May’s withdrawal agreement. Nor is Kwarteng in denial about the short-term disruption of Brexit. As one admirer recently put it to me: “Kwasi believes in the sunlit uplands after Brexit, but he understands that you have a bit of a climb to get to the uplands”. And, of course, Boris Johnson, the man who ultimately has to decide when the cabinet is divided, is a Brexiteer. 

Nevertheless, Brexit divisions are defining the spat playing out in the media over the UK’s dearth of lorry and tanker drivers.

Rod McKenzie, managing director of policy and public affairs of the Road Haulage Association, is accused on the front page of the Mail on Sunday of causing panic-buying of petrol by leaking remarks by a BP executive at a private government meeting.

The paper paints a picture of McKenzie as a biased ex-BBC Remainer (he ran Radio 1’s Newsbeat before joining the RHA) for blaming “post-Brexit immigration restrictions for the crisis in the industry”, and quotes a senior government source accusing him of “weaponising” the information that BP only had two-thirds of the normal supply of fuel at forecourts.

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McKenzie denies the leak, and suggested on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House that these accusations stem from “No 10”. In an interview on the Andrew Marr Show the same morning, Shapps sought to blame “some fairly irresponsible briefing from one of the Road Haulage Associations” as “the thing that has sparked this particular rush on the petrol stations”.

On the surface, this looks like a simple blame game for the shortages between the industry and government. Yet the industry itself is also divided over the question of how far Brexit can be blamed for the current shortages. Some on the frontline – who are most familiar with the changing nature of the workforce – are frustrated that the loss of European drivers is being underplayed by RHA spokespeople and BBC reporting alike.

“I know we’re so tired of talking about Brexit but it’s a huge factor. Brexit is really what pushed it to where we are now, pushed it over the edge. But I know we don’t want to talk about Brexit and our transport minister is denying it has anything to do with Brexit at all,” says one long-time lorry driver.

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“With the Road Haulage Association, I don’t know what’s in our interests and what’s just for show. I don’t really know what the agenda is there, but the main PR guy is a media person, not a transport person. The political class don’t really understand this job.”

At a cabinet level, the division is essentially between those who think this is a transitory problem and others who believe it reflects a wider and permanent phenomenon in the labour market, in which HGV drivers are going to command higher wages, whether they are living within the European Economic Area, the United States, or small free-trading nations such as Canada and the United Kingdom. Kwarteng and others in the cabinet believe it is a more permanent shift: but it is Shapps and those who see this as a problem of worker availability, not of deeper changes, who have currently won the day. 

As even the industry itself cannot decide how far to present the core issue as a lack of European workers, it makes Labour’s response more difficult to gauge. While calling for more visas for overseas workers risks being seen as taking the Remain-leaning “side” in the Brexit debate, or preferring cheap foreign labour, the situation on the ground suggests the dividing lines are more complicated.

Thus far within Labour, the issue has attracted less debate: there is broad consensus around the need to increase wages across the labour market, with the only disagreement being comparatively minor ones over how to achieve that aim. But Keir Starmer has also made a significant strategic call this morning, telling Andrew Marr that he would look to recruit 100,000 HGV drivers. Has he opened Labour up to years in which the immigration debate is solely conducted in terms of numbers and control, the difficult terrain that Ed Miliband struggled to navigate from 2010 to 2015? 

The big political bet that some within Vote Leave made was that the end of the free movement of people would change the UK’s immigration debate to one where you could have a less fractious discussion and in which total numbers might be higher, but this would be more politically acceptable because British ministers ultimately controlled the total level. Now it is Starmer who has accepted that bet and will be hoping that what matters more is not how many HGV drivers he is calling for, but that voters see that we clearly need more than we have at present.