How should the government respond to the cost of living? The FT has revealed that Jacob Rees-Mogg has told Boris Johnson that Rishi Sunak’s planned increase in National Insurance should be shelved due to the inflationary pressures facing households – while yesterday in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson faced not-so-subtle calls from his own side to scrap green levies on energy bills and to prioritise the United Kingdom’s energy security.
Johnson’s preferred approach is to invest in renewable energy and in more nuclear power stations – rather than accede to the demand of some on his back benches and in his cabinet that the UK end its moratorium on fracking. Sunak is widely believed to have doubts about the government’s net zero strategy, but his aversion to further borrowing puts him at odds with the low-tax Conservatives who ought to be his closest natural allies. (It’s also true to say that most in the cabinet think that the government should be willing to borrow more in order to avoid immediate tax rises.)
One thing that Rees-Mogg is surely right about: the combination of price increases and tax rises in April look like a perfect storm to make the 2022 local elections a very painful time for the country, and therefore a very painful set of contests for the Tory party – and of course, a painful time for Boris Johnson personally.
One advantage that Liz Truss has over Sunak in the leadership election we’re all pretending isn’t under way is that, as Foreign Secretary, she has an opt-out clause from all that. She can use her role as Women and Equalities Minister to wade in or out of domestic policy when it suits her (it’s a sign of Johnson’s favour that Truss still has the Equalities brief), meaning she doesn’t have to get bogged down.
But she and Sunak both share a weakness: that they are, broadly, from the same bit of the Conservative Party, and they are therefore fighting for the same set of votes. Truss is using the Equalities brief to signal to the right of the party that she is not just an economic liberal like them, but she is aligned with them on (some) social issues too. Given Priti Patel’s well-advertised difficulties at the Home Office, there isn’t really an alternative candidate on the right of the party at the moment.
Except, of course, if Rees-Mogg’s willingness to intervene on difficult issues like tax-and-spend means that he emerges as the most authentic hope for the party’s right flank. And that’s another looming problem for Boris Johnson: his political weakness means that everyone in the cabinet will, increasingly, be thinking not of how best to advance under him, but after him.