Conservative MPs and activists – totally immersed in the hourly twists and turns of the leadership race – completely understand why government is “on hold”. They know it’s not “convention” for out-going prime ministers to bind their successors to big decisions on anything, let alone big financial decisions.
Unfortunately, everyone else is incredulous and angry their Government has announced nothing of substance to help them through the cost of living crisis. There seem to be daily announcements about ever-higher energy bills – with knock-on effects everywhere – to which ministers have barely responded.
A Sun on Sunday leader labelled the lack of leadership while the economy tanks “a disgrace”; they’re right.
While government hiatus has obviously delayed the announcement of the really big help people need (a massive bailout for the working class and nothing less), it has also prevented the announcement of the sort of basic practical advice that will be essential to the public in the next six months.
In some ways, silence over the “small things” people can and should do has been more noticeable. Practical advice ought to have been coming out of government for months – regardless of the hiatus – and should be an immediate priority.
(To be fair, there has been some advice on where to seek financial help, but nothing vaguely on the scale there needs to be).
Better communications are certainly not the most important thing – the bailout is the most important thing – but they are still important. They can change behaviour and, this winter, even save lives. This is what Number Ten and the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy should do:
First, immediately establish a public-facing panel made up of BEIS Ministers and officials and the leaders of the most important energy providers. They should begin with a high-profile public launch and then meet regularly to update the public during the crisis, giving regular updates via the media and social media.
Then the committee should explain to the public the reasons for the crisis, how long it will last, and what to expect.
It should also explain what actions the public can take to mitigate rising costs, above and beyond the help the Government will provide. This should include things like: a proper explanation of how much things are going to cost (the cost of running a dishwasher, the cost of an hourly use of an electric heater etc); advice on when to use electrical appliances to keep costs down; advice on any additional hardship payments; and so on.
This is why leaders from energy firms should be involved; they’re in a better place to explain the technicalities of home heating, more efficient use of boilers etc.
Ministers should explain – in plenty of time – the prospect of energy rationing and how people should cope. They should seek to minimise panicking and stockpiling, which is surely set to begin soon.
More generally, a reformed committee, with people with experience of production and R&D, should begin to articulate what a future energy policy should look like and the policies needed to deliver it. This should focus on green energy but also more explicitly on energy security (something the public have been more interested in over the last few years than politicians).
Such a conversation will be taking place already, quietly, but it would help if people heard it.
This sounds a lot like the response to Covid. I wrote here at the time I think the Government over-did the use of scientists to make decisions that were often political; however, there’s no denying their approach was, on their terms, extremely successful. Almost immediately, people understood what was demanded and expected of them.
People badly wanted basic advice; the same is true now. This time, the challenge is different – it’s about giving people help, not warning them – but the approach is similar.
At the moment, outrageously, the public are relying on the media and social media for this sort of advice, while they wait for government to start again. Ministers need to reassure poorer voters that massive, massive help is on its way.
However, they also need to help people to help themselves with practical advice. This in turn will make people feel like we’re actually being governed again.