The most extraordinary scenes that I’ve witnessed in my lifetime were in Sri Lanka, a country now experiencing political and economic convulsions to make our own recent Westminster shenanigans seem becalmed. I was one of the many Ministers to resign earlier this month – some in the media spoke of a ‘tsunami’ of resignations; but I was on a beach in Bentota, near Gaulle, on Boxing Day 2004 when a real-life tsunami struck, and it’s somewhat more impactful. Emily and I were on the last day of our honeymoon and we were very fortunate to escape unscathed, as the shock of massive natural devastation erupted before us.
An abiding memory for me was the amazing bravery of individual Sri Lankans, who went out of their way to save lives and, as we witnessed at first-hand, provide what shelter they could to displaced tourists. So it has been with some sadness that I have seen broadcasts of the chaos engulfing this most beautiful island nation, with its leader forcibly ejected from office, and its people facing urgent shortages of fuel and other essentials.
Above all, it’s a reminder that our own cost of living challenge is part of a truly global gyration – the demand for commodities resurgent after reopening from the pandemic; a trend strongly exacerbated by the further energy shock arising from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. We have also seen record temperatures and heat this week, disrupting infrastructure and putting pressure on NHS services. Again, this is about a policy challenge that goes beyond our shores – it’s called ‘global’ warming for a reason.
The question is – when such massive external forces are at play, what exactly can we do in our country to change matters? Filling the oil tank with Kerosene is still far dearer than a few months ago; the same for all other energy, and now food and other commodities have risen sharply in many cases, presenting a huge headache not just for consumers but also businesses, who face instability as their own input prices surge. We may not quite be in the same boat as Sri Lanka, but British people are struggling too - so what can the British Government do about it?
The first and most important thing is not to make matters worse. I stand by what I have written in previous columns on the cost of living – the Government’s job is to hold its nerve, and present a determined front, inspiring wider market and consumer confidence by being prepared to make difficult decisions. I realise that the crisis which came to a head with the resignation of many Ministers, and then the Prime Minister himself, will have stretched the instinctive day to day trust voters would want to have in their Government. But to restore that trust, it’s vital that the next incumbent of Number 10 Downing Street is seen to be prepared to tell people the truth about the challenges that we face – rather than making politically convenient promises that voters might prefer.
There are no easy answers, we shouldn’t pretend that there are. But with the Government adopting the same fiscal discipline that we will expect many belt-tightening households to consider, we can at least send a message that there is a firm hand on the tiller. This doesn’t mean that the Government should literally sit on its hands and wait for the cost of living storm to eventually fade. Targeted, temporary support is still a highly credible intervention, and I can confirm that the first ‘Cost of Living Payments’ will have found their way to around 7,800 eligible families in South Suffolk this month, with £650 paid over two instalments to households on the lowest incomes. Further significant support will follow for other households later this year.
In referring to high fuel costs and global warming in the same article, some might suggest that there is a trade-off here. But it’s like the issue of new pylons to connect offshore wind farms to the grid, where I have worked so hard with MP colleagues to get offshore connection options on the agenda. It’s about balance – offshore wind will help us to deliver net zero and energy security, but its associated infrastructure must not unduly damage our rural environment. Likewise, of course the ideal scenario is 100% nuclear and renewables, but we will need other fuels for the transition, and they need to be priced at levels that don’t cripple our economy. A total focus on the cost of living is the right and proper approach from whoever may be our next Prime Minister.
Published in the Suffolk Free Press.