Why energy crisis won’t be solved by Boris Johnson’s holiday complacency – Andrew Vine
IT’S probably a generational thing, but it really doesn’t sit well with me to hear the National Grid having to reassure the country that the lights will stay on this winter.
In common with others who lived through the power cuts of the early 1970s when the country was plunged into darkness, it seems to me a failure of government that the ghosts of a miserable era of decay and emergency should be returning to haunt us.
Yet those spectres of families sitting in chilly, candle-lit rooms when the heating stopped working and industry shut down to save power loom all too large because of soaring energy prices.
Some industries, including steelmaking and chemical manufacture, are warning of shutdowns within days. Meanwhile, the Government bickers over whose job it is to do something about it. What a shambles.
Even if the National Grid is right, and the lights and central heating stay on, the price of them doing so is going to hurt.
Hikes of £400 for an average household, in addition to a 12 per cent rise in energy prices that has just been imposed, are going to spell trouble for countless people.
The charity National Energy Action predicts up to 1.7 million additional households will face unaffordable bills by this time next year.
For some which are already struggling, the winter holds the prospect of choosing whether to put food on the table or keep warm.
For the elderly in particular, who use their heating earlier because they feel the cold, the prospect of vastly increased bills is deeply worrying.
Two relatives of mine, in their 80s and 90s, are already fretting about the cost, because their fixed incomes allow precious little room for price increases.
Rock-bottom interest rates have long robbed them of any income from lifetime savings, and if they are hit by big bills their only option is to dip into their capital.
There is something broken in the way this country runs its energy policy if poor people are faced with a choice between heat and food, or the retired have to run down their savings in order to keep warm.
Energy companies pointing to fluctuating wholesale gas prices, shrugging their shoulders and saying, “It’s just market forces”, doesn’t offer any real answers to hard-pressed domestic or business customers faced with suddenly unaffordable bills.
The big companies who inherited customers from energy suppliers which have gone bust in recent weeks are likely to post increased profits as a result, which is going to be very galling to all of us who wince when the bill for gas and electricity arrives.
Equally galling is the prospect of a Government that plainly expects the public to simply grin and bear it. To see Boris Johnson full of optimism at his party conference last week, outlining a vision of Britain in which everything is rosy is seriously at odds with a nation where millions will worry about heating their homes.
Nor does it look good for him to be on holiday in Marbella whilst crunch talks with industry take place. Shades of James Callaghan going on holiday to the Caribbean whilst rubbish piled up in the streets in the winter of 1978/79 when the country was crippled by strikes.
Price hikes will hit especially hard here in the North, where incomes are lower than in the affluent South East, and the Prime Minister’s talk about levelling up the economy seems seem like a far-fetched fantasy.
Long-term strategic failures to secure Britain’s energy security, such as a lack of gas storage or sluggishness in developing nuclear power stations, cannot in fairness be laid at Mr Johnson’s door.
But the buck will rightly stop with him if the lights go out or voters in his cherished red wall northern seats are skinned by the cost of keeping warm.
There has been an air of complacency about Mr Johnson over what may yet develop into an energy crisis, as there has been over petrol shortages and gaps on supermarket shelves so serious that a survey last week found that one in six people had been unable to buy essential foods in the previous fortnight.
He should have a care, because that complacency could return to bite him. Mr Johnson is old enough to remember the blackouts of the 70s, and there is something else that he should recall about them.
The face of that crisis became a Conservative Prime Minister who appeared complacent and out of touch with the privations of Britain’s people.
Edward Heath was bounced out of office as a consequence of the energy crisis, as voters concluded that he simply didn’t have a grip on an issue that was having a devastating effect on millions. As a student of history, Mr Johnson would do well to reflect on that.
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