In the race to win, UK Conservatives accused of ignoring crises

LONDON –

As Britain weathers a sweltering summer and braces for a cold financial reckoning in the autumn, calls for the Conservative government to act are growing louder.

But the Conservatives are busy choosing a new leader, through a protracted party election whose priorities often seem far removed from the country’s growing turmoil.

Britons’ energy bills have soared, with more hikes to come, as the war in Ukraine reduces global oil and gas supplies. The Bank of England forecasts a long and deep recession at the end of this year along with inflation of 13 percent. Meanwhile, temperatures in Britain hit 40 degrees Celsius in July for the first time on record, and millions face limits on water use as England’s pleasant green land dries to a parched brown.

There is little sense of crisis among the Conservatives as Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak tour the country courting the 180,000 party members who will elect Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s successor. Under Britain’s parliamentary system, the winner of the Tory leadership race, to be announced on September 5, will also become prime minister, without the need for a national election.

Conservative members are mostly middle-aged or older, mostly middle class or wealthy, and their views do not always reflect those of the country as a whole.

“I’d like to see some real Conservative politics,” said Helen Galley, a lawyer and local Conservative civil servant attending a candidate meeting in the English seaside town of Eastbourne. “Low taxes, smaller state, less regulation, industry and trade free from EU regulations. ΓǪ Some self-sufficiency and sense of self-responsibility.”

Those priorities are reflected in the campaign arguments of Truss and Sunak, who say they will address the cost-of-living crisis through long-term measures to boost the economy. Truss says he would cut individual and corporate taxes instead of giving “handouts” to people. Sunak says he will tackle inflation before cutting taxes and offer unspecified help to people struggling to pay their bills.

Critics say neither candidate is grasping the magnitude of the crisis. Millions of households face a financial squeeze in October, when a cap on household energy bills linked to wholesale prices is next raised. Consulting firm Cornwall Insight forecasts that the average household will pay more than £3,500 ($4,200) a year for gas and electricity, more than double the amount from the previous year, with a further increase expected in the new year.

Martin Lewis, a consumer advocate who runs the popular Money Saving Expert website, warned that “we are facing a possible national financial cataclysm,” with millions of people unable to heat their homes this winter.

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who led the UK through the 2008 global financial crisis, asked Johnson, Truss and Sunak to get together and draw up an emergency budget in preparation for a “financial time bomb” in October.

“It’s not just that they’re asleep at the wheel, there’s nobody behind the wheel at the moment,” Brown, a member of the opposition Labor Party, told broadcaster ITV.

Brown’s call was echoed by Tony Danker of the Confederation of British Industry business group, who said “we simply cannot afford a summer of government downtime while the competition for leadership plays out.”

But with Parliament suspended for its summer recess and Johnson spending his final weeks in office, big policy is on hold. The few government announcements in recent weeks have been decidedly modest: one was a plan by a “Chewing Gum Task Force” to remove sticky stains from city streets.

Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, said the outgoing leader is barred from making “major fiscal interventions” during the transition period, and any new cost-of-living remedies must be decided by the next prime minister.

“The Conservative Party, and therefore the government, is having a completely different conversation with the public,” said Alan Wager, UK-based research associate at think tank Changing Europe. “And it’s a pretty serious time to have this big dilemma.”

Anti-poverty and environmental protesters have hounded Truss and Sunak at campaign events, a reminder of the world outside the conservative bubble. In Eastbourne, several climate activists who had infiltrated the crowd stood up to boo Truss for failing to address the climate crisis. They were dismissed with chants of “Out, out, out” from the conservative audience.

The environment has hardly had a leading role in the contest. Both Truss and Sunak say they will uphold the government’s goal of cutting Britain’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, while offering policies that would make it harder.

Truss supports fracking and renewed extraction of oil and gas from the North Sea and says he will suspend green levies used to finance renewable energy projects. Sunak wants to ban new onshore wind farms, although he supports offshore wind power and more nuclear power to reduce Britain’s carbon footprint.

Party polls suggest Truss is likely to have an unquestioned lead in the race. Sunak is viewed with suspicion by some Conservatives for resigning from the scandal-plagued government last month, a move that helped bring down Johnson. Opponents have portrayed the former finance minister as a high-tax, high-spending quasi-socialist because of the billions he spent to prop up the economy during the coronavirus pandemic.

Truss defines herself as a disruptor who “will be bold” in cutting taxes and cutting red tape, a message many conservatives are eager to hear.

Party member Robbie Lammas, part of the “Liz for Leader” contingent at the Eastbourne event, said he liked Truss’s “more optimistic view” of the economy.

“It’s good to be bold and it’s good to challenge orthodoxy,” he said.

Another audience member, Wilhelmina Fermore, said she was “undecided” but was leaning toward supporting Truss because “she’s more attractive and I think she relates to people on the street.”

However, what appeals to the Conservative Party does not necessarily appeal to the country. And Chris Curtis, head of political polling at the research firm Opinium, says the candidates’ financial promises will soon collide with stark reality.

“Liz Truss can believe all she wants that she will be able to solve this problem through tax cuts, but there is a large part of the population that is about to be hit,” he said.

“Talking about how these people are going to be helped is not the kind of thing that will appeal to members of the Conservative Party… (but) there will have to be a new massive intervention to help people this autumn.”

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