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Tory Mayor Says Liz Truss And Rishi Sunak Don't Understand Cost-Of-Living "Storm" Awaiting Them

Rishi Sunak with Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen (Alamy)

4 min read

Neither Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss “fully appreciates and understands the storm that awaits them” on the cost of living, Conservative mayor Ben Houchen has told PoliticsHome.

The Tees Valley mayor said that he believes many people who have always considered themselves comfortable will find themselves “struggling” to pay bills this winter, and expressed “frustration” with Truss and Sunak for their laser focus on the niche concerns of the Tory membership during the campaign. 

Both candidates are facing increasing pressure to detail plans for how they would alleviate cost-of-living pressures if they are elected to be prime minister, after data suggested annual energy bills could climb above £4,000 from January. 

Houchen, who is backing Sunak in the leadership race, has been hearing growing concern from constituents in Tees Valley, and questioned whether Truss and Sunak truly understood the scale of people's fear of price rises. 

“I don't think either candidate really fully appreciates and understands the storm that awaits them when they come in," he explained. 

“There will be people across the country who have never in their lives ever considered themselves to be ‘not well off’, or they would never consider themselves to be in that category of deprivation and needing support, who are worried about energy bills this winter.

“I think for the first time certainly in my lifetime, we're going to see people later in the year who are going to think ‘I'm actually really struggling here and personally, I never thought of myself in that category’.

"And that becomes a whole different issue.”

At a leadership hustings in Darlington on Tuesday evening, Truss and Sunak could not agree on whether they should hold an urgent summit on how to tackle the crisis with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, despite a Bloomberg report revealing that the government is planning for the possibility of blackouts this winter. 

PoliticsHome understands there are fears within government that energy shortages could lead to empty supermarket shelves.

While there are growing calls from across the political spectrum for urgent interventions before the new prime minister enters Number 10 in September, Houchen said he does not think that will be too late to produce a plan. 

“I think you would actually need something like an emergency Budget by the end of September," he explained. 

“We’ve seen what, for example, what Rishi did at the Treasury, he was able to put furlough together in less than a week.

“So I think something will be done.”

Truss has committed to holding an emergency Budget in September if she wins. 

“I just get frustrated that the campaigns are very focused on the Tory membership,” Mr Houchen added.

“And there are a lot of Tory members that care about cost of living, but they're pitching a campaign that is a different one than you would be pitching to the country as a whole.

"And I think that's ultimately damaging for the Conservative Party. 

“It’s one of the reasons I don’t think we should have had a leadership election at all because you could see this coming down the road.”

The leader of the Conservative group on Wolverhampton City Council Wendy Thompson has described the current state of affairs as "almost interregnum" with the need for a "war-footing" to deal with it.

"But there are ministers in place and it's important they have meetings with the energy companies [...]There is a cabinet and they should be formulating some kind of plans to put in place," she told PoliticsHome.

"When the new Prime Minister gets in, more will have to be done... It's got to be action stations... and I'm quite certain there will need to be almost a war time footing to deal with it."

Thompson added she was "very concerned" about the price rises, saying there was significant worry among people in her community, especially pensioners who had contacted her last winter about the cost of energy.

But she said the scale of the problem meant proposals, such as tax cuts, would do little to solve the problem, especially for groups who don't pay tax who are already at risk from fuel poverty.

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