WHO, really, would want to take over from Boris Johnson at a time like this? There are so many serious crises in the in-tray, from high inflation and a pending recession to the consequences of Russian aggression in Ukraine, from Britain’s still largely undefined post-Brexit future to the myriad problems facing the NHS and the need to address long-term energy security.

There is a compelling reason, however, why the Conservative leadership contest between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss has largely revolved around one key issue – the cost-of-living crisis, exacerbated by the staggering prices we will pay, and have to continue to pay, for heating our homes.

Yesterday’s articles in these pages pointed out, in terms as stark as they were unarguable, of the sheer scale of the problem. The chief executive of Energy Action Scotland, not a man given to hyperbole, has warned of a humanitarian disaster overtaking us if urgent action is not forthcoming.

Outwith the pandemic, it adds, the nation is facing, this winter, the highest-ever number of excess deaths if the government does not do more to address the cost of living.

Nicola Sturgeon has warned that UK government inaction on rising energy bills will lead to people dying. Professor Linda Bauld has cautioned that steep rises in the cost of living could lead to a public health crisis over the coming winter. Poverty, including fuel poverty, she said, carries “significant” health implications.

We have Martin Lewis, the money-saving expert, to thank for being caustically outspoken on the issue. It is, he said earlier this week, a crisis on the scale of the pandemic. The “political theatre” of allowing August 26 to arrive with the latest price-cap announcement, with nothing firm in place was, he pointed out, incredibly damaging.

This is not something that can wait, Lewis added: what are needed now are firm decisions from Sunak and Truss. Warning that the energy crisis risked civil unrest and deaths from hypothermia this winter, he has even offered his services to Truss to draw up urgent plans.

It is very difficult to find fault with such sentiments, given the vulnerability of millions of poorer households to crippling energy costs. The price-cap is expected to exceed £3,500 from October and £4,200 in January. There may be even worse to come: analysts Auxilione have forecast that the energy bills cap will top £5,000 next April, more than £200 above previous estimates.

Many families, and not just those in the poorer category, are already deeply worried by the prospect of such bills. Widespread hardship is predicted; and this unprecedented pressure on domestic budgets adds to the impact already felt from higher food prices and rising interest rates.

It’s in this context that the timing and, particularly, the excessive duration of the leadership contest is unfortunate. Johnson acknowledged yesterday that his government’s support package to tackle the cost-of-living crisis had fallen short, and that whoever succeeds him will make sure there is extra money to help people.

He made the point that most people have yet to receive the assistance already provided for by the government. Some eight million households are to receive another £326 over the next couple of months, while “everybody in October” will “get help with the energy support scheme”.

But while Johnson is understandably reluctant to tie his successor down to firm fiscal policies, he and his cabinet colleagues seemed content this week to leave it to the electricity supply companies to come up with ways of softening the impact of soaring bills.

Signs of resistance and suggestions of change are emerging. There are, for example, roughly 100,000 people on the Don’t Pay UK group. Not paying one’s fuel bills is an interesting prospect – but, as Iain Macwhirter pointed out yesterday, the energy companies, though unable to cut them off, will respond by installing pre-payment meters in their homes, adding the debt to the pay-as-you-go tariff.

A new pressure group, Enough is Enough, is demanding the cancellation of this autumn’s energy price-cap increase. Gordon Brown has made a number of proposals, some of them more realistic than others. Labour, for its part, insists it has been leading on the cost-of-living crisis; further plans are expected on Monday.

The increasingly divisive struggle between Sunak and Truss has been a distraction, laden as it is with coded personal attacks, claim and counter-claim, and vague promises. Even allowing for the candidates’ natural unwillingness to make binding promises before they even reach No 10, there has been a distinct lack of convincing urgency about the best way to help people.

Sunak, the underdog, has seized the initiative by revealing plans to find up to £10bn in order to mitigate the effects of October’s price rise. Every household would benefit from a £200 reduction in bills by the abolition of VAT on energy. It is a start, and it will be interesting to see what Truss proposes by way of response.

It is axiomatic that wholesale energy prices cannot be reduced by wishful thinking; but it is equally a given that extra financial support has to given to those in direst need. Increasing Universal Credit might be a convenient way of addressing this, even if that does little to add middle-class families. But doing nothing is not an option. As Ms Sturgeon has pointed out, the situation is fast deteriorating and many people across the UK can’t afford until the new Prime Minister takes office in September for further action to be taken,

Beyond that, Johnson’s successor will need – in addition to inflation, recession, Ukraine and the NHS – to turn his or her attention to the long-term energy supply and security: making us less reliant on Russia’s unpredictable Putin, sourcing extra suppliers of energy and domestic generation, and, as an emergency, ramping up home insulation and making domestic heating more effective.

It is an imposing challenge by anyone’s standards but, as the energy crisis shows no appreciable signs of receding, and will be with us for a long time to come, it is clear that here – as with helping those families who need it most – a lack of decisive action is not an option. Longer-term solutions to the energy problem may be forbiddingly expensive but they will surely be better than the short-term political thinking that has so far helped bring about the crisis.


Glasgow’s global stage

GLASGOW, no stranger to showpiece events in recent times, faces tough competition in its bid to host the 2023 Eurovision song contest. Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Sheffield are all formidable rivals. But Scotland’s largest and most cosmopolitan city has the infrastructure and the self-confidence to make a success of the finals; not for nothing has William Hill made it 4/5 odds-on favourite.