Energy crisis: Boris Johnson must realise soaring gas prices, a benefit cut and a new tax don't fit with his 'levelling-up' agenda – Ian Swanson
Forget about a white Christmas and start dreaming of a mild winter.
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As soaring gas prices add to other pressures facing families and individuals already struggling to make ends meet, a few months of benign temperatures seem to offer the only hope for many people of escaping financial disaster.
It has been estimated energy bills in Scotland will increase by an average £375 this winter, plunging an extra 150,000 people into fuel poverty.
And the Resolution Foundation think tank has warned low-income families with children will be worst hit by a triple whammy of higher energy costs, the cut in Universal Credit and the new health and social care tax.
Wholesale gas prices in the UK have nearly quadrupled since January, hitting a record high that has forced several smaller suppliers out of business. Affected customers are being transferred to alternative suppliers, but on less favourable tariffs so will end up paying much higher prices.
Multiple factors have been blamed for the the gas price surge, including a huge increase in demand from China and claims that Russia is deliberately squeezing supplies to Europe in the hope of getting approval to open a new pipeline.
But the UK might have been better prepared for the crisis if the government had not forced the closure of the country's main gas storage site off the Yorkshire coast in 2017 by refusing to subsidise the maintenance and upgrades needed to keep it going. The site had provided 70 per cent of UK gas storage and its closure left the country with just about the lowest gas storage capacity in Europe.
The shortage of lorry drivers which has resulted in empty supermarket shelves and queues at petrol stations is another crisis which could have been averted. UK ministers try to deny Brexit is the cause of it by pointing out there was a shortage even before Britain left the EU – but that begs the question why they had not done something to tackle it.
Instead they have been forced into an embarrassing U-turn of offering short-term visas to foreign drivers, hoping – perhaps forlornly – they will come back. At the same time, shoppers not only struggle to find the goods they want but inevitably face higher prices too.
Meanwhile, UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps signalled at the weekend that the government plans to press ahead with the October 6 scrapping of the £20 uplift in Universal Credit introduced during the pandemic despite calls from England football star Marcus Rashford and former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson for it to stay.
The government’s own assessment warned of the “catastrophic” impact of the move: “Homelessness and poverty are likely to rise, and food banks usage will soar.”
And in April, a leap in National Insurance, rebranded as a health and social care levy, will knock another hole in family finances, with the poorest hardest hit as usual.
Boris Johnson and the Conservatives were cock-a-hoop when they won over so many former Labour voters in the so-called “red wall” seats at the last election. But many of these ordinary, working-class families now find themselves with a massively increased financial burden despite the Prime Minister’s much-vaunted “levelling up” agenda.
For too many people, the only thing levelling up are the bills.