Since 2010, Conservative leaders have consistently embraced the Brownite approach to energy and growth. Now there is no way out
Gordon Brown is back, winning accolades and airtime to whip up the politics of envy on the back of a looming economic crisis. Boris and Rishi, for their part, have done much to revive Brown’s economics of big debt and big government. And the Tories have handed him the conditions for a return to the public stage by leaving a vacuum of leadership only a familiar, if not failed, face like his can fill at such short notice.
The country is quite literally without a leader. Boris Johnson has only just returned from sunning himself somewhere in Slovenia, just as we face up to the reality of a winter fuel crisis. The Chancellor, meanwhile, is to my knowledge “working remotely” in an unknown location just as his economy slips into a 15-month recession, according to the Bank of England.
A campaign of civil disobedience is already up and running. The new Prime Minister is going to need great skill to get through this period without being overcome by a Poll Tax-type revolt, when the people feel the sudden pinch in their pockets as they did in 1989. Brown is right, of course, to highlight the impact the energy crisis will have on working people, and families in particular. He correctly identifies the scale of the problem, which at least half the nation will struggle to financially confront this winter – even if his stretching of the definition of “poverty” makes the word increasingly meaningless.
But for him to make it through a sprawling Guardian essay and major speech without even mentioning the self-inflicted wounds of net zero fanaticism underpinning the crisis he speaks of is, well, impressive. And for him to call for such extensive state action with little attempt at costing, is reckless. His Blairite rallying cry for new strategies, targets and handouts does nothing to explain how the nation will pay for the support people clearly need. And he said nothing at all about solving the fuel shortage and moving the UK towards energy independence in the long term. He is spreading false hope to win short term praise.
And praise he has won. For Brown is being hailed for his supposed compassion and concern for struggling bill-payers. But if he really cared, he would not completely skirt around the elephant in the room: Britain’s under-investment in energy production, our unwillingness to use the shale gas under our feet, and the unreliability and abject failure of “renewables” to meet our energy needs. Brown is not brave. He is a coward for running scared – during and since his time in government – of middle-class green campaigners at the expense of working people. His silence says more than his words.
Yet the economy he helped create, of wrong-footed regulation, low productivity and high immigration, was wholeheartedly embraced by Johnson and Sunak, who pushed taxes higher still. More than simply legitimising Brownite economics, they preached and in many areas expanded it. Theresa May, meanwhile, extended the self-harming environmental commitments (originally dreamed up by New Labour) in the dying days of her administration, tying future governments’ hands.
This consensus, which might be branded Tory New Labourism, has for two decades sleepwalked the nation into the current energy crisis. But more than that, it has removed genuinely conservative solutions from the table altogether. Any serious state action plan would immediately remove the extortionate 25 per cent surcharge on electricity bills for social and green commitments and move to cut five per cent from VAT, whilst slimming down the state to pay for it.
Amusingly, Brown proposes electricity and heating rationing in government departments (which is likely to render them even more ineffective) when he could just admit many of them need to be cut back generally. In a crisis, bureaucrats will always arrive with a spreadsheet of new taxes and handouts, as well as some futile tweaks and numbers tricks. But they are not brave enough to confront the underlying issues they help to create.
But ultimately, this Tory government deserves all it gets. Brown’s narrative is appealing because they gave credence to his socialist politics.