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Boris Johnson hailed by his party despite UK’s economic woes

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MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Empty gas pumps, worker shortages, gaps on store shelves. It’s an autumn of inconvenience in Britain, if not quite a winter of discontent.

But this week, Boris Johnson is in his element. The prime minister has shut his problems outside during the Conservative Party’s annual conference, speaking to supportive crowds, posing for selfies and clowning around on a bicycle inside a vast convention center in Manchester.

Johnson ends the four-day conference Wednesday with a speech promising that Britain will emerge from Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic as a stronger, more dynamic country — even if the road is slightly rocky.

“There is no alternative,” Johnson said Tuesday, adopting a phrase used by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, an iconic figure for Conservatives. “The U.K. has got to (become) — and we can do much, much better by becoming — a higher-wage, higher-productivity economy.”

Britain has been through a turbulent time since the party last met in person two years ago. Then, Johnson vowed to “get Brexit done” and take the U.K. out of the European Union after years of wrangling over exit terms.

That promise won Johnson a huge parliamentary majority in December 2019. He led Britain out of the EU last year, ending the U.K.’s seamless economic integration with a trading bloc of almost half a billion people. Britain also has been hammered by a coronavirus pandemic that has left more than 136,000 people in the U.K. dead, Europe’s highest toll after Russia.

The pandemic, which put much of the economy on ice, and Brexit, which made it harder for EU citizens to work in the U.K., combined to throw the economy out of sync.

While not as dire as Britain’s infamous “Winter of Discontent” in 1978-79, when thousands of striking workers crippled essential services and led to Thatcher’s election, the country has seen the most widespread economic disruption in years.

A shortage of truck drivers, due partly to a testing backlog and partly to an exodus of European workers, has snarled British supply chains. That has left supermarkets with some empty shelves, fast-food chains without chicken and gas pumps out of fuel.

After more than a week of fuel-supply problems, the government called in the army this week, getting scores of soldiers to drive tanker trucks. It also says it will issue up to 5,500 short-term visas for foreign truckers to come to the U.K.

Other struggling parts of the economy say they aren’t getting the same quick action. Pig farmers protested outside the Conservative conference, saying a shortage of abattoir butchers means thousands of pigs may have to be slaughtered on farms, ending up in landfills rather than the food chain.

Meryl Ward, a pig farmer from central England, said it was “complete madness” that the government was refusing to issue visas to a small number of skilled European butchers to ease the crisis.

“It’s a complete and utter waste,” she said.

Johnson says businesses will have to tough it out by raising wages, improving pay and conditions to get British workers to fill the empty jobs. He said that too many sectors of the British economy relied on Eastern European workers willing to do tough jobs for low pay, and vowed the U.K. would not go back “to the old, failed model where you mainline low-wage, low-skilled labor.”

While Johnson argues that EU membership pushed down U.K. wages — a claim many economists contest — he has downplayed Brexit’s role in the country’s current economic woes, pointing out that the United States and China also have shortages of truck drivers. Critics say those countries don’t also have the gaps on supermarket shelves that Britain is experiencing.

Johnson said supply-chain problems are just the “stresses and strains you’d expect from a giant waking up,” adding that Britain is rebounding fast after suffering the sharpest contraction of any major economy in the pandemic. Unemployment is under 5%, though the ending this month of a program that paid the wages of millions of furloughed workers could drive that number up.

Many Conservatives are worried the winter could bring a hit on voters’ pocketbooks due to rising fuel costs from a global surge in natural gas prices and a cut to welfare benefits for millions that kicks in this week.

That could make it harder for Johnson to meet his key goal of “leveling up” the U.K. by spreading economic opportunity beyond the south of England, where most business and investment is centered. That promise helped him win working-class votes in areas that long were strongholds of the center-left Labour Party.

“The Conservative Party has changed,” said Michael Gove, the government’s grandly titled Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

He said the party that slashed public spending for a decade after 2010 under Johnson’s predecessors had rejected an economic model “in which the fruits of growth were not equally shared and the talents of all were not equally valued.”

One day, voters will judge whether the Conservatives have delivered on their promises. But for now, with most opinion polls giving the party a lead over a demoralized Labour Party, delegates in Manchester were as buoyant as their famously irrepressible leader.

They packed meeting halls and sipped warm white wine at sweaty receptions, as if Britain’s pandemic-plagued months of lockdowns, masks and social distancing were a bad dream.

The Johnson-led Conservative Party was visibly younger, more diverse and less dominated by affluent residents of southern England than it had been for years.

“You wouldn’t have seen this even 10, 15 years ago, the north turning out in such droves to support the Conservative Party,” said Max Darby, a delegate who was born in the northern England town of Scunthorpe. “I think Boris has to be doing something right if people like me are more than happy — in fact proud — to vote Conservative.”


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As coal stocks shrink, India faces growing energy shortage crisis | Business and Economy News

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India is grappling with an escalating crisis as stockpiles of coal, the fuel used to generate about 70% of the nation’s electricity, dwindle to the lowest in years just as power demand is set to surge.

Coal-fired power stations have an average of four days’ worth of stock of the fuel, according to the latest data, and more than half the plants are already on alert for outages. Power Minister Raj Kumar Singh has warned that the nation could be handling a supply squeeze for as long as six months.

Power shortages are already emerging, and the gap between available electricity supply and peak demand widened to more than 4 gigawatts on Monday, according to government data from power ministry.

While shortages of coal in China, and that nation’s power crunch, have commanded most attention, it’s India that’s facing a potentially worsening scenario.

Industrial and domestic consumption usually hits peak levels as India enters a festival season from later in October and that could risk stalling a rebound in Asia’s third-biggest economy, which has been recovering from an unprecedented 7.3% contraction in the fiscal year ended in March.

Here are some potential next steps and constraints in India’s crisis:

Mining Rebound

State-run Coal India Ltd., the world’s top producer of the fuel, is seeking to increase daily coal supply to 1.9 million tons by mid-October from about 1.7 million tons currently, an increase that would go a long way to help ease the deficit. Deliveries to power plants are currently short by between 60,000 and 80,000 tons a day, according to Anil Kumar Jain, India’s coal secretary.

Coal production has been hit by severe flooding in India’s eastern and central states during the typical monsoon season, with mines and key logistics routes impacted. Any recovery will hinge on the weather — rains need to stop to allow mines to ramp up operations and for coal trucks to resume deliveries.

On Tuesday the government said it will allow companies that have been allotted coal and lignite mines for their own use to sell 50% of their annual output in a bid to ease shortages.

While coal stockpiles at power plants are perilously low, it remains unlikely the operations will completely run out of fuel. Government ministries and industry are working to closely monitor stocks, and could move again to divert supplies away from industrial users — like aluminum and cement makers — to prioritize power generation. That’d leave those industries faced with their own dilemma: curb output, or pay high prices for imported coal.

Supply Controls

Rationing domestic power supplies, especially in rural and semi-urban areas, may emerge as one of India’s easiest solutions — though it’d pose other challenges for Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Indian power distributors do typically cut supplies to certain areas on a rotational basis when generation is lower than demand, and an extension of load-shedding would likely be considered if power plants take any further hits.

However, doing so would risk jeopardizing the country’s fragile economic recovery and Modi’s government is already facing criticism for failing to generate enough new jobs.

Price Incentive

Soaring power prices could potentially make it viable for some coastal plants to use high-cost imported coal, easing some of the burden on domestic miners.

The country meets around three-quarters of power demand with locally-produced coal, and much of the rest is imported from countries including Indonesia, South Africa and Australia.

Spot prices of power sold through the Indian Energy Exchange Ltd. jumped more than 63% year-on-year in September to average 4.4 rupees ($0.06) a kilowatt hour and were as high as 13.95 rupees on Wednesday, according to official data. That means some plants likely could now look to snap up prompt cargoes of seaborne coal, even with prices of the commodity at a record.

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New guidelines are being drafted to allow generation companies to sell surplus electricity on the exchanges, in part to spur idled plants back into action. Two giant plants in Gujarat state owned by Tata Power Co. and Adani Power Ltd. are among those that have been mothballed as a result of issues including high imported coal prices.

Fuller Dams

The same monsoon rains that have flooded coal mines are likely to boost hydro-power generation.

Large hydro-electric projects on dams are India’s major electricity source after coal and the sector performs at its peak around the rainy season which typically extends from June to October.

Generation from the projects accounted for about 14% of India’s total during the six months through Sept. 30, and that share could increase if the plants can operate at higher utilization rates. Recent data shows hydro-power generation is above target in a sign that companies are beginning to ramp up output.

Turn to Gas

There could be a larger role for natural gas to play, even with global prices currently surging. India has almost 25 gigawatts of gas-based generation capacity, though nearly 80% of that capacity remains unused because of high prices of the fuel.

At current prices, imported LNG cargoes bought on the surging spot market aren’t a solution for Indian power generators, according to Arun Kumar Singh, chairman of Bharat Petroleum Corp, India’s second biggest fuel retailer which also buys and sells LNG.

However, in a desperate situation the gas-powered fleet could help prevent any widespread power outages. State-run generator NTPC Ltd., for example, has idled capacity that can be fired up in around 30 minutes if needed and is connected to a gas grid.

Pricey Diesel

Any switch to oil products like fuel oil and diesel could be limited due to pollution curbs and prohibitively high prices. As it stands, the lack of large oil-fired plants directly connected to the grid means gas-to-fuel swaps are unlikely to take place on a grand scale.

Some commercial establishments, including hospitals and malls, as well as small industries use diesel-based generators to ensure uninterrupted power supply in case of outages. But record high diesel prices in the country will prevent their widespread use.


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Your Wednesday Briefing

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Damning evidence about Facebook products.


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Taiwan fears ‘full scale invasion’ by China by 2025 | World News

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TAIPEI: Taiwan Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng has said on Wednesday that China will be capable of mounting a full scale invasion of the democratic island by 2025.

Over a four- day period beginning last Friday, Taiwan reported close to 150 Chinese air force aircraft entered its air defence zone, part of a pattern of what Taipei calls Beijing`s “continued harassment of the Chinese-claimed island.”

Chiu Kuo-cheng further said that military tensions with China are at their worst in more than 40 years.

Tensions have hit a new high between Taipei and Beijing, which claims the democratic island as its own territory, and Chinese military aircraft have repeatedly flown through Taiwan`s air defence identification zone.

Asked by a lawmaker on the current military tensions with China at the parliament, Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng said the situation was “the most serious” in more than 40 years since he joined the military, adding there was a risk of a “misfire” across the sensitive Taiwan Strait.

“For me as a military man, the urgency is right in front of me,” he told a parliamentary committee reviewing special military spending for home-made weapons including missiles and warships.

China says Taiwan should be taken by force if necessary. Taiwan says it is an independent country and will defend its freedoms and democracy, blaming China for the tensions.

Chiu said China already has the ability to invade Taiwan and it will be capable of mounting a “full scale” invasion by 2025.

“By 2025, China will bring the cost and attrition to its lowest. It has the capacity now, but it will not start a war easily, having to take many other things into consideration.”

The United States, Taiwan`s main military supplier, has confirmed its “rock-solid” commitment to Taiwan and also criticised China. Beijing blames Washington`s policies of supporting Taiwan with arms sales and sending warships through the Taiwan Strait for raising tensions.

Taiwan`s special military spending over the next five years will go mostly toward naval weapons including anti-ship weapons such as land-based missile systems. Taiwan reported one Chinese air force aircraft entered its air defence zone on Tuesday.

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