Tim Martin, who campaigned for a hard Brexit, including leaving the single market and the end of freedom of movement which came with it, urged Boris Johnson to consider a new, “reasonably liberal” visa scheme to encourage foreign workers to relocate to the UK.
He suggested countries close to Britain could be given preferential treatment – seemingly at odds with the argument laid out by Brexiteers that leaving the EU would allow the UK to treat all nationalities equally.
Mr Martin told The Daily Telegraph: “The UK has a low birth rate. A reasonably liberal immigration system controlled by those we have elected, as distinct from the EU system, would be a plus for the economy and the country.
>> To sign up to our free daily politics newsletters click here
“America, Australia and Singapore have benefitted for many decades from this approach. Immigration combined with democracy works.”
The Wetherspoon chairman had previously warned that remaining in the EU would lead to “significant adverse economic consequences” and labelled those warning of the economic damage that cutting ties with our biggest and closest trading partner would bring as “doomsters”.
Arguing for a no-deal Brexit in 2019, Mr Martin said: “I have argued that the UK – and therefore Wetherspoon – will benefit from a free-trade approach, by avoiding a ‘deal’ which involves the payment of £39bn to the EU.”
He also cut the price of some drinks by 20p in a stunt to show how he believed Brexit would lower his costs.
However, as a result of Brexit and the pandemic, much of the UK’s hospitality industry is now struggling to fill thousands of vacant roles.
Mr Martin’s comments triggered an angry response from many of those who had argued against Brexit.
Campaigner Femi Oluwole wrote: “I really hope Tim Martin never runs into Tim Martin. He’s gonna be so angry!”
Former Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood said: “I remember disagreeing with Tim Martin on @bbcquestiontime about this, back in 2016. He was arguing the opposite position to this then. Too late mate.”
The number of job postings in the bar, restaurant and pub sector has shot up by 46 per cent since indoor trading was allowed to resume in England on 17 May, according to the consulting services firm RSM.
Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association (NTIA), said both Brexit and the loss of staff during the long pandemic had left many firms struggling with their reopening plans.
“There are severe staffing shortages,” said Mr Kill. “A lot of workers are from Europe, so Brexit has had an impact, and there is the furlough hangover, where a lot of people have now got other jobs to keep themselves going and are not coming back.”
A report released at the end of April by Fitch Ratings, one of the Big Three credit rating agencies, said staff shortages were largely down to “EU nationals who have left the country following Brexit and employees who have switched sectors during the pandemic”.
The agency said it also expected hospitality companies such as pubs, hotels and restaurants “to incur the additional costs of hiring and training new employees … putting pressure on their margins”.
“Before Brexit, EU nationals made up between 12 per cent and 24 per cent of the total workforce in the UK hospitality industry, according to KPMG,” the report said.
“Many of them left the country during the lockdowns. EU nationals now have to obtain a visa in order to enter the country to work, which entails securing a job offer that meets minimum salary levels, among other requirements.”
The Fitch Ratings report added that hospitality businesses “may face increased salary requirements, for example in order to attract EU nationals, particularly during high summer and early autumn seasons, or to hire skilled employees to train workers with no prior experience.”