BORIS Johnson has intervened in the Tory leadership race with a thinly veiled dig at Rishi Sunak, mocking the former Chancellor over his U-turn on cutting VAT on energy bills.

As recently as February, Mr Sunak firmly ruled out the idea, telling the Commons it would “disproportionately benefit wealthier households”.

He warned MPs: “There would be no guarantee that suppliers would pass on the discounts to all customers, and we should be honest with ourselves: this would become a permanent Government subsidy on everyone’s bills, a permanent subsidy worth £2.5 billion every year, at a time when we are trying to rebuild the public finances.”

However this week, as he trails Liz Truss in the race for Number 10, Mr Sunak dramatically changed his position and announced he would temporarily scrap VAT on household energy bills if he became Prime Minister to help people with the cost of living.

He was widely mocked by Ms Truss’s supporters for executing a “screeching U-turn”.

Speaking to the Commonwealth Business Forum in Birmingham today, Mr Johnson joined in the ridicule, saying cutting VAT on fuel “turns out to be easier than we thought”.

He said: “We come now to the next stage in the great relay race of politics.

“I didn’t think it was meant to be a relay race, by the way, when I started.

“I can assure you that the baton is going to be passed seamlessly and invisibly to the hand of somebody else.”

He added: “I’ll give you this assurance, they will continue with the same programme, cutting taxes, simplifying regulation as much as possible, taking advantage of all our new regulatory freedoms, getting rid of every encumbrance from solvency to MiFID [financial regulation] to VAT on fuel – turns out to be easier than we thought.”

Brexit Opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, a supporter of Ms Truss, defended the Prime Minister appearing to take sides in the contest.

He said: "I think the prime minister was puzzled as to why that wasn’t policy earlier in the year when the prime minister and other members of the cabinet, including me, thought it was an extremely good idea but it wasn’t so popular in 11 Downing Street.

"So times change and we change with them, as they say."

Earlier, Culture Secretary nadine Dorries, a supporter of Ms Truss, claimed Mr Sunak had helped orchestrate a “ruthless coup” to oust Mr Johnson from Downing Street.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I am bitterly disappointed that Boris Johnson was removed by a ruthless coup, as he was, led largely by Rishi Sunak.”

She said a Daily Mirror report that she might give up her relatively safe Mid Bedfordshire seat so Mr Johnson didn't have to defend his more marginal Uxbridge & South Ruislip constituency as “100 per cent nuclear grade tosh”.

Mr Johnson also said periods of difficulty were “inevitable” as he faced accusations his “zombie government” was failing to address the crisis caused by soaring energy bills.

Consumer champion Martin Lewis urged the Prime Minister and the two rivals vying to succeed him to thrash out an emergency package of support.

Mr Lewis said decisions must not be delayed until after the Tory leadership contest as households would start receiving increased bills before then,  ahead of the energy price cap rising to £3,500 or more in October.

He dismissed the extra help promised by Mr Sunak and Ms Truss during their leadership bids as “trivial” in the face of bills which are set to be £2,300 a year higher than they were last October.

In a speech in Birmingham, Mr Johnson said: “I know that the pressures people are facing on their cost of living and the global inflation problems that we’re seeing, the energy squeeze, the cost of gas, every country around the world is feeling it.

“But my argument to you would be that sometimes you’ve got to go through periods of difficulty and you’ve got to remember that they are just inevitable.”

Speaking ahead of the Commonwealth Games opening in the city on Thursday, he said: “Every athlete knows that you have to go through times of real strain and real sacrifice when you sometimes feel it’s not worth it if you’re going to be ready to win.

“And by the same token we in this country have to get through these difficult times, but we have to keep investing and getting ready.”

The unprecedented scale of the problems facing households was underlined by Mr Lewis on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

He said: “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s going to throw many households into a terribly difficult financial situation that will leave them making some awful choices.”

The wholesale price data that informs the price cap suggests it will increase 77% on top of the 52% rise in April, taking the typical bill to £3,500 a year.

“Others say it will be higher,” Mr Lewis, of the Money Saving Expert, warned.

“We are expecting it to rise again in January.”

He said the choice facing the Government was “you either have to cut prices for people or you have to put more money in their pockets, especially at the poorest level”.

He added: “The problem is we have this zombie government at the moment that can’t make any big decisions.”

Major policy decisions have been postponed until the new PM takes office, with the Tory leadership contest due to end on September 5.

Mr Lewis said: “You have to look at the timing issues here. The formal announcement of the price cap will be towards the end of August.”

That would trigger companies to inform their customers about an increase in their direct debits.

“People will be panicking, it will be desperate – they are already panicking right now,” he said.

“By September 5 when we have a new prime minister, we will already be absolutely in the mire of this.”

In a message to Mr Sunak, Ms Truss and Mr Johnson, he said: “Please, go and sit in a room together, make a collective decision now of what help you can give and make an announcement to forestall the mental health damage that is coming across the country.”

He said “there needs to be action now, you are all in the same party, you should be able to work out some unifying policy, something for heaven’s sake”.

“Sit in a room, decide what you are going to do together, take a little bit of collective action and give the panicking people across the country a little bit of respite from this."

While Mr Sunak has said he was suspend VAT on energy, Ms Truss has said she would have a moratorium on green levies worth around £150 a year.

But Mr Lewis said: “We need political will to get this done. I’m afraid green levies and cutting VAT, they are trivial in the big picture of this.”

The Scottish Tenants Organisation this week announced it was advocating the non-payment of energy bills from October 1, as the price hikes would "drive people towards starvation and freezing to death".

Spokesperson Sean Clerkin said: "We are calling on everyone to take part in a consumer strike and not to pay their energy bills.

"We are also supporting Don’t Pay UK in their campaign to get the excessive profits by energy giants taxed more heavily so a social tariff is introduced to reduce the price of energy for all of us, but especially for low income groups such as the elderly, the disabled and others on social security benefits."