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The Next Prime Minister Must Tackle the Cost-of-Living Crisis or Face Dire Electoral Consequences

Sir Bernard Jenkin MP/KJM Today Opinion

August 10, 2022.

The two final candidates for the Conservative leadership have made promises on tax and borrowing. The new prime minister will, however, have to confront a rapidly deteriorating cost-of-living crisis that demands flexibility and decisive action.

The political pressure is to reverse tax increases which contravened the Conservatives 2019 manifesto. But the new prime minister will also have to shield low-to-middle income households from rising energy and food prices or face dire economic and electoral consequences.

In April of this year, in the Queens Speech debates, I demanded the government introduce a fiscally responsible cost-of-living package. Rishi Sunak introduced a variety of one-off payments, which, combined with the national insurance increase, were progressive: those on low incomes gained the most, while those on high income paid more. The Resolution Foundation, a left-wing think tank, estimated that policy measures announced between February and May would cover over 90 per cent of the cost increases for households in the bottom two deciles.

The situation has now got much worse. When the former chancellor announced the May package, the price cap was forecast to increase by 42 per cent in October. Now, the latest estimates are that the price cap will increase by 77 per cent. Households in the lowest two income deciles would need to spend £1,600 to £1,750 more on energy bills in 2022-23 to consume the same amount as in 2020-21. The increase for pensioner households is greater still, at around £2,130. The equivalent figures for spending on food are much smaller but would still mean extra spending on what are likely to be very tight family budgets.

The [May] package is no longer adequate to fill the widening shortfall in low-income household finances. A low-income household where no one received a disability benefit will currently receive a maximum of £1,200, while a low-income pensioner household where no one received a disability benefit will receive a maximum of £1,500. Both low-income and pensioner households would now need £500-600 per year more to cover the costs of just energy at 2020-21 levels.

Further increases in home energy costs could arise in January when Ofgem decides on the next cap, given the ongoing geopolitical crisis and weaponisation of natural gas supplies to Europe.

Nor can the new prime minister ignore the overall economic context. The inflationary climate creates new short-term fiscal constraints. Last week, the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee voted by a majority of 8–1 to increase the Bank Rate by 0.5 percentage points, to 1.75pct. They now expect inflation to peak at 13pct in Q4 2022, and to remain at very elevated levels throughout much of 2023. Energy prices have contributed to rising inflation, but also the labour market is tight, and the bank is, therefore, acting to reduce excess demand in the economy.

Understandably, neither of the two candidates have spelt out a comprehensive package for the autumn to ensure that households can afford the basics of food and heating. Reversing the national insurance rise does put money back into people's pockets, but the benefit would be spread well beyond the worst off households. Liz Truss has also announced her intention to suspend green levies, which is more progressive.

The next prime minister will have to introduce a fiscally responsible package of support for low-income households or they will simply run out of cash. The leadership election has enabled a fruitful debate about whether now is the right time to introduce tax cuts, but whoever is prime minister will have to prioritise the plight of low-income households during this difficult winter.

Sir Bernard Jenkin is the Conservative MP for Harwich and North Essex.

© Bernard Jenkin / PoliticsHome / The House 2022
Image via PoliticsHome / The House

We in the UK may not be alone in facing an energy crisis this winter but not for nothing has our country been called 'Rip-Off Britain'. For far too long we have been fleeced in just about everything with regard to what we have to pay compared to other countries and this is now reaching something of a tipping point.

Sir Bernard Jenkin is absolutely right with his point that low-income households are going to need help - and a lot of it. At the time of writing, Liz Truss has apparently ruled out further help in the shape of 'handouts' (like the £650 package announced in May, with some receiving half now and the other half 'sometime in the Autumn' - whenever that may be). Rishi Sunak on the other hand, appears to have suggested that if he becomes PM, he will introduce further cash help.

Let's make one thing abundantly clear; what we are going to suffer from is a crisis entirely of the government's own making, primarily due to the response to COVID-19. Obviously other governments in other countries did similar things and all are faced with a similar crisis but as already pointed out, the UK has seen higher costs for everything for decades.

We are going to be paying for Ministers and MPs ignoring something that has been under their well-fed noses (and well-fed at taxpayer's expense) for years and years. COVID-19 and the absurd reactions to it have brought matters to a head and it is this government that will have to deal with it.

Public sector unions and strikes (which have little to do with anything except trying to bring down a government unions don't like) won't help. Cutting taxes - as Liz Truss has advocated - won't help most people either.

Obviously hard cash direct to the people who need it the most will help this winter, if it is enough, but where will this money come from? If taxes are cut, government income goes down. Cash help now, in 2022, as needed as it will be, will also be of no help for future winters if costs carry on as they always have and inexorably rise. Or is anybody seriously suggesting hundreds of pounds, then thousands, being given away every year?

A useful starting point regarding the question of where the money will come from will be to scrap overseas aid in its entirety. The UK cannot afford to throw huge sums at other countries when so many here need help.

It is utterly reprehensible that energy companies continue to make huge profits and yet still push the price to consumers ever higher, to the point where it will be unaffordable (the same applies to homes and both buying and renting them). The basics of life are somewhere to live, heat and light, food to eat, clothes on your back and shoes on your feet.

All businesses need to make a decent profit - there is nothing wrong with that. But we are not talking about such decent profits however. We are talking about vast sums beyond the imagination of most people. And it is nothing more than exploitation.

If suppliers will not bring the cost down voluntarily, then they must be made to. By whatever means necessary.


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