Race to win, UK Tories accused of ignoring crises

LONDON (AP) — As Britain weathers a scorching summer and braces for a chilly financial toll in the fall, calls for the Conservative government to act grow louder.

But the Tories are busy choosing a new leader, through a protracted party election whose priorities often seem out of touch with the country’s growing unrest.

Britons’ energy bills have soared – and more rises are to come – as war in Ukraine squeezes global oil and gas supplies. The Bank of England predicts a long, deep recession later this year alongside 13% inflation. Meanwhile, temperatures in Britain hit 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) in July for the first time, and millions face water use limits as green earth and pleasant of England dries to a parched brown.

There is little sense of crisis among Tories as Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and former Treasury chief Rishi Sunak crisscross the country to woo the 180,000 party members who will choose a successor to outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Under the British parliamentary system, the winner of the Conservative leadership race – which will be announced on September 5 – will also become Prime Minister, without the need for a national election.

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

“I would like to see real Tory politics,” said Helen Galley, a lawyer and local Tory leader attending a meeting of candidates in the English seaside town of Eastbourne. “Low taxation, a smaller state, less regulation, freeing industry and trade from EU regulations. … A certain autonomy and a sense of responsibility towards yourself.

These priorities are reflected in campaign speeches by Truss and Sunak, who say they will tackle the cost of living crisis through long-term measures to stimulate the economy. Truss says she would cut personal and business taxes rather than give people “handouts.” Sunak says he will tackle inflation before lowering taxes and offer unspecified help to people struggling to pay their bills.

Critics say neither candidate grasps the scale of the crisis. Millions of households face a financial crisis in October, when a cap on household energy bills linked to wholesale prices is subsequently raised. Consultancy Cornwall Insight predicts the average household will then pay more than 3,500 pounds ($4,200) a year for gas and electricity, more than double the amount of the previous year – with a further rise expected in the new year.

Martin Lewis, a consumer champion who runs the popular Money Saving Expert website, warned that “we face a potential 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, called on Johnson, Truss and Sunak to come together and hammer out an emergency budget for a “ticking time bomb financial” in October.

“It’s not just that they’re sleeping at the wheel – there’s nobody behind the wheel at the moment,” Brown, a member of the opposition Labor party, told 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 inactivity while the race for direction unfolds”.

But with Parliament adjourned for its summer recess and Johnson spending his final weeks in office, big politics are 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 was not allowed to make “major budgetary interventions” during the transition period, and that any further cost-of-living remedies had to be decided by the next prime minister.

“The Conservative Party – and therefore the government – has a completely different conversation with the public,” said Alan Wager, a UK associate researcher at a Changing Europe think tank. “And it’s a pretty serious time to have this really big disjunction.”

Anti-poverty and environmental protesters have sued Truss and Sunak at campaign events – a reminder of the world outside the Tory bubble. In Eastbourne, several climate activists who had infiltrated the crowd stood up to heckle Truss for failing to tackle the climate crisis. They were taken away to the chants of “Out, out, out” from the conservative public.

The environment hardly figured in the competition. Truss and Sunak say they will maintain the government’s target of cutting Britain’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, while proposing policies that would make this more difficult.

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

Party polls suggest Truss likely has an unassailable lead in the contest. Sunak is viewed with suspicion by some conservatives for leaving the scandal-ridden government last month, a move that helped bring down Johnson. The former finance minister has been described by opponents as a highly taxed and spendthrift quasi-socialist due to the billions he has spent to prop up the economy during the coronavirus pandemic.

Truss markets herself as a disrupter who will “be bold” to cut taxes and cut red tape – a message that many conservatives want to hear.

Party member Robbie Lammas, who was part of a ‘Liz for Leader’ contingent at the Eastbourne event, said he liked Truss’ ‘more optimistic view’ on the economy.

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

Fellow audience member Wilhelmina Fermore said she was ‘on the fence’ but leaned to support Truss because ‘she’s more engaging and I think she relates to people on the street “.

Yet what pleases the Conservative Party does not necessarily please the country. And Chris Curtis, head of political polling at research firm Opinium, says the candidates’ economic promises will soon be met with harsh reality.

“Liz Truss can believe all she wants that she’s going to be able to fix this problem through tax cuts, but there’s a big chunk of the population that’s about to get hammered,” said- he declared.

“Talking about how you’re going to help these people isn’t the kind of thing that members of the Conservative Party will enjoy…(but) it’s going to take a massive new push to help people this fall.”

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Edward L. Robinett