Echoes of the 1970s: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.”
Boris Johnson loves a quote, so he may well be reflecting on this one from the usurper King Claudius in Hamlet. Hot on the heels of the Afghanistan crisis, another emerges which, on top of the continuing driver shortage that is now leading to the closure of petrol stations, also has echoes of the 1970s.
He will have been hoping that the reshuffle of his team would have been the starting point for getting back to his core priorities of growth and ‘levelling up’ that would form the focus of the upcoming Conservative party conference. Once again, though, the Fates have interfered with his plans. The fourfold increase in gas prices, combined with the regulatory retail price cap, has led to six suppliers going under so far this month, leaving 1.5 million households to be transferred to new providers on more expensive tariffs.
The knock-on impact threatened food supplies because of a shortage of CO2. Who knew that 60% of the CO2 we need for food production was produced by one fertiliser manufacturer?
The Government has urged people not to panic – which will probably mean they will – and has argued that these are short term problems that the market will resolve. If it’s wrong, the political cost to it could be high. By all accounts the driver shortage is not a short-term problem.
The Government wants firms to increase salaries to attract more drivers – which they have been doing. But the shortage is so severe only a temporary relaxation of visa rules for foreign drivers is likely to alleviate it in the shorter term.
Exponential gas prices increase and the challenges facing logistics are all driving up inflation, which is a problem for the Government on several fronts. Voters will feel the impact of increased prices. If inflation is persistent interest rates might have to go up, increasing mortgage costs for many who will be already financially stretched.
A cost-of-living crisis would not be the Brexit dividend promised to people at the last election. Inflation also increases the cost of servicing the massive government debt. If it hits 5% the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) thinks it will mean the government will have to pay out an extra £9bn on index-linked gilts.
The overall tax burden is already at a historic high after the rises announced last month to pay for health and social care. For the last four decades the Conservatives have been ramming home the message that high taxes and high prices are the cost of voting Labour. They are in danger of blowing apart their own narrative.
Labour Leader Sir Keir Starmer is gearing up for his own party’s conference this weekend. In advance he published a 30-page essay in an effort to set out his personal stall. More vision than detail, it can be interpreted as a move towards the centre ground: it talks of the need to get away from the party’s ‘comfort zones’ of the past, for a partnership between business and government, of repairing the public finances, with no mention of nationalisation. A New Deal for workers is, though, confirmed as a priority.
Whether – like the Liberal Democrats at their conference – he will struggle to get cut-through remains to be seen. The most media interest will likely be in whether his plans to abolish one-member-one-vote succeed. Introduced by his current Shadow Business Secretary, Ed Miliband, when he was leader, OMOV made it easier for the party to elect Jeremy Corbyn.
Sir Keir wants to get back to the Parliamentary Labour Party having more say through an electoral college system. He seems keen to push it forward at the conference despite trade union opposition and calls to pause. He may see it as a key signal for the electorate, but it is hardly a Tony Blair Clause IV moment, and if he fails the message voters will get is that he isn’t able to persuade or lead his own party.