Leadership Vacuum Heightens Worries as Crises Loom in U.K.
LONDON — With energy costs surging, a recession looming, more rail strikes down the tracks and the prospect of a drought, Britain faces its fair share of problems.
But the transition in leadership in the top tier of the British government has made those challenges more acute. The country has a caretaker prime minister who is preparing to depart, there is a war of words between his two potential successors, Parliament is not in session and it’s vacation season, too.
All of which prompted worries that Britain’s politicians have left the public in limbo at a moment of gathering crisis.
“It’s basically like waiting for a typhoon to hit,” said Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. “We’re all confident that bad things are going to happen but, at the moment, there’s nobody in charge, no sense that anybody has got a grip of those things.”
Amid a stream of grim economic news, and as the economy starts to contract, many Britons have been shocked by new estimates that inflation will hit 13 percent and that the average cost of heating a normal home will climb to 4,266 pounds ($5,170) next year. That would raise the typical monthly payment to £355, from £164 now.
Officials are also reported to be drawing up plans to avert an electricity supply shortfall and possible blackouts in the winter.
On top of that, a rail strike is scheduled to resume on Thursday and there is acute pressure on public services, including the country’s overstretched health system. Travel chaos recently choked airports and the country’s biggest ferry port, Dover; and drought warnings are in place after England experienced its driest July since 1935.
Yet this tsunami of bad news has hit during a political vacuum, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson working out his last few weeks in Downing Street before a successor is announced on Sept. 5.
Mr. Johnson, who was forced to quit after a series of scandals, has rejected appeals to recall Parliament or to sit down with the two contenders vying for his job — the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, and the former chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak — to work out how to help Britons facing huge hikes in energy bills.
The sense of drift extends beyond the energy crisis, with public services crumbling and the ambulance service under severe pressure. Britons are also struggling with more administrative tasks such as renewing passports or securing tests for driver’s licenses.
“It’s not so much chaos, it’s just a slow sense of decline: things stopping one after another,” Professor Fielding said.
Nonetheless it is the news about energy price hikes, caused in large part by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and their dire prospects for the economy that have crystallized a sense of foreboding.
Earlier this month the Bank of England, warning that inflation would hit 13 percent, hiked interest rates, and also forecast a recession lasting more than a year. At the time of the announcement both Mr. Johnson and his chancellor of the Exchequer, Nadhim Zahawi, were on vacation.
Back in Downing Street last week, Mr. Johnson attended a meeting last week with energy company bosses but insisted that decisions would have to await his successor.
Underwhelmed by that outcome, one newspaper on Friday opted for irony, publishing a banner headline that read: “PM turns up for meeting.”
A former prime minister from the opposition Labour Party, Gordon Brown, sought to fill the gap last week, suggesting in an opinion article that energy companies should be nationalized temporarily if they failed to offer lower bills. However, his intervention served to underscore the absence of Labour’s current leader, Keir Starmer, who was also on vacation.
When he returned to work on Monday, Mr. Starmer said that, were he in power, he would freeze energy bills to curb the impact on hard-pressed consumers.
Though Mr. Johnson has been criticized for refusing to try to problem-solve with Ms. Truss and Mr. Sunak on energy costs, the three would be unlikely to agree even if they were to get together in the same room.
The two leadership contenders are fighting a bitter political battle, and management of the economy has been one of the main dividing lines. Ms. Truss wants to focus on cutting taxes to spark economic growth and Mr. Sunak wants to prioritize the fight against inflation.
But, during an ill-tempered campaign, both candidates have been forced to shift their positions somewhat. Mr. Sunak now says he wants to cut VAT, a sales tax, on energy bills after having previously rejected that idea; Ms. Truss, who at one point insisted she wanted to cut taxes rather than give people “handouts” in the form of grants, is now hinting that she might offer more help to those struggling with energy costs.
Analysts argue that, behind the scenes, work is being done and that there is time for the new prime minister to prepare a package of measures before the prices rises in the fall.
“The conversation between the energy companies and government is being facilitated and continuing,” said Hannah White, acting director of the Institute for Government, a London-based research institute. “So, I don’t think policymaking is quite as paralyzed as some of the media is seeking to portray it.”
Ms. White believes that part of the criticism of Mr. Johnson may come from those who always opposed him. “They may be using the fact that he’s not solving this problem as a stick to beat him but, in my view, it wouldn’t be right for him to be making a policy intervention,” Ms White said.
Nonetheless, few doubt the severity of what many people in Britain are facing. Martin Lewis, a prominent financial expert, told the BBC that Britain was confronting a “national crisis on the scale we saw in the pandemic,” likening the situation to seeing hospital beds filling in continental European countries in 2020 but taking no action.
More than 100,000 people, in the meantime, have joined an online pledge to refuse to pay energy bills in October. “We’re facing an energy price hike in the U.K. that will cause widespread devastation to so many,” said Lewis Ford, from Hull in the north of England, who has gotten involved with the online initiative, which is known as Don’t Pay. “Millions will be forced into debt and far, far too many will be left without heating in the cold of winter.”
“The disgraceful failure of our political leaders to address this crisis is obvious to everyone,” he added in an emailed statement.
The wider sense of malaise has underscored one of the peculiarities of the British system under which, when the governing party changes its leader, the country changes prime minister without a general election.
Inevitably, that leaves a hiatus while the successor is chosen and, in a country where power is relatively centralized in London, that can be jarring for Britons whose electoral system is designed to deliver strong governments with the ability to act.
“The expectations are high, and at the moment the delivery is almost nonexistent because we’ve got a government that it is incapacitated,” said Professor Fielding.
There is, he added “an empty hole where a decisive prime minister should be.”