Two years ago this month, Boris Johnson told his cabinet colleagues he was a Brexity Hezza.
It was an attempt to reassure moderate Tories that their new PM was not a rabid right-wing and that he actually had more in common with his former admirer Michael Heseltine.
Brexit was delivered, but within weeks the pandemic struck and the Prime Minister proved he really was not afraid of the intervention of the Heseltin state.
The Treasury leave program, in particular, was the government’s biggest direct support since World War II.
But Johnson has shown beyond Brexit that he is not a free-market Thatcherite (in fact, Heseltine, who helped secure his succession as an MP for Henley, was more his One Nation Tory flavor) .
His response to the latest energy price crisis suggests he’s certainly open to state intervention in another area that would make Ms. T admirers nauseous.
When he was president of the Chamber of Commerce in the mid-1990s, Heseltine said he would speak before breakfast, before lunch, before tea and before dinner.
Before Britain woke up for breakfast on Monday, the Prime Minister was on the New York tarmac to parade his own interventionist tendencies.
We need to try to fix it as fast as possible, make sure we have the supplies we want, make sure we don’t allow the businesses we rely on to go bankrupt, he said. There was a key caveat which suggested that no solutions would be needed in the long term as the market begins to sort itself out.
He highlighted his talent for spotting public discomfort, reassuring with optimism and explaining things in a user-friendly format. His argument that soaring gas prices are due to a sudden surge in post-Covid demand, similar to viewers putting the kettle on a commercial break, was a classic of the genre.
Yet business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng’s speech hours later in the House of Commons suggested that the prime minister’s instincts were not exactly matched with a detailed plan.
As the prime minister spoke of not allowing companies to go bankrupt, Kwarteng warned that the government would not bail out failed companies. As Johnson spoke about securing supply, Kwarteng said the UK had more than enough supply and that he did not expect supply emergencies to occur this winter.
Fully aware that former Prime Minister Ted Heath (another One Nation Tory, in this case) was removed from his post in part because of the three-day week, Kwarteng’s prediction that he did not There was no way the lights would go out was a political reminder of the pitfalls of energy supply. More importantly, his emphasis on protecting consumers as his primary focus underscored the need to show that the Conservatives are in touch with the daily cost of living issues that affect millions of people.
However, the timing of soaring gas prices couldn’t come at a worse time for a government that is already pushing through tax hikes and universal credit cuts. The latest figures from Resolution Foundations show that four million people receiving the allowance will see their energy bills skyrocket next month, just as their income will be cut by 20 per week.
The fact that 40% of households with universal credit use prepayment meters shows how vulnerable they will be to rising bills. When Kwarteng said there was absolutely no way people could heat their homes this winter, it was hard to see how he could be so adamant without a major new initiative.
One solution could be an extension of the Warm Homes Discount program which gives a one-time rebate of 140 on winter energy bills, which the minister said he was considering. While Kwarteng has been particularly shy about the details, other broader policies may include government-guaranteed loans for big companies to accept clients from threatened small businesses and some sort of bad bank to help people up. that they can be hired.
Labor and Greens have some strength with their argument that ministers have overlooked the demand side of this equation, aside from the supply. Kwarteng dodged questions about the lack of gas storage, the failure of energy efficiency programs and insufficient efforts for renewables, but perhaps the biggest failure was the simple lack of a coherent overall strategy.
Although Kwartengs’ department is in theory the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, a few weeks after his appointment as Secretary of State, he abolished the internal Industrial Strategy Council (ISC) of the government. The council was a vehicle for businesses to promote regeneration in a coordinated fashion, led by former Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane.
Given that the ISC had written a very critical report on the lack of PM upgrades just a year earlier, its abolition in March seemed to some like cold-served revenge. At the time, Kwarteng even hinted that the wording could be removed from his department’s name, saying he wanted to mark a break with the industrial strategy brand.
Fast forward to September 2021 and it looks like the Prime Minister is learning the hard way he needs to strategize more and plan more ahead. On Sunday he appointed Haldane as the first chef of his new Upgrade working group. Installing a true expert to design and implement a strategy for that difficult-to-define sound phrase certainly makes sense to many Conservative Red Wall MPs. In fact, it sounded like exactly the sort of thing Michael Heseltine would do.
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