Boris Johnson’s fumbled defence of the government’s record on the cost of living has exasperated Conservative MPs and sharpened fears about the party’s performance in Thursday’s local elections.
Asked about a pensioner forced to travel around on buses to stay warm and keep heating bills down, the prime minister’s first response was to boast that he introduced free travel for older people. During the interview on Tuesday, he admitted that the government had failed to do enough to alleviate the pain of soaring costs.
Amid growing fears over the impact of the cost of living crisis, the Treasury is looking at whether it can cover some or all of this autumn’s energy price rise from government funds, the Guardian has learned.
It is understood that Rishi Sunak’s department has been examining whether to simply absorb most of the cost, rather than offer a discount on bills or a council tax rebate. Sunak is concerned about the inflationary impact of more borrowing – but the option of absorbing some or all of the rise has been considered.
A Treasury source said they “don’t recognise this as policy work being done at this point in time”. A spokesperson added: “Energy bills are capped until the autumn. We won’t know yet what the size of the rise will be given the volatility of prices we are seeing now and it’s right that we wait … [to] decide what the solution should be.”
Thursday’s vote will be the first UK-wide electoral test since details emerged of lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street.
Tory MPs are braced for losses in London and the south of England as a toxic combination of Partygate and the rocketing cost of living take their toll. MPs in northern England said they are more confident of holding on to local councillors.
In a pre-election interview on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, the prime minister struggled to articulate what help may be available to a pensioner struggling to make ends meet.
Asked about Elsie, a 77-year-old who has cut back on meals and uses buses to stay warm, he responded: “The 24-hour freedom bus pass was actually something that I introduced.” Asked what more Elsie could cut back on, he said he “didn’t want her to have to cut back on anything”.
Speaking to LBC’s Tonight with Andrew Marr on Tuesday night, Reid said Elise was “disappointed” with Johnson’s response to her plight.
With concerns about the cost of living a major election issue, some Tory MPs responded with irritation to Johnson’s performance. “The thing with him is, he hasn’t read the script sometimes,” said one. “There are so many positive things he could have said.”
Another backbencher and former cabinet minister said: “It won’t have won us many votes. Boris doesn’t actually care about these people. He basically despises most of the human race, so that makes it quite difficult for him to sympathise.”
The shadow work and pensions secretary, Jon Ashworth, said that “boasting about the London bus pass reveals just how out of touch this narcissistic prime minister is”. He added that the state pension had just suffered the biggest real-terms cut in 50 years.
Both main parties are desperately trying to manage expectations before Thursday’s elections, with the Tories warning of as many as 800 losses out of more than 5,000 council seats being contested, and Labour suggesting they could make few gains.
The Conservative peer and elections expert, Robert Hayward, said he projected net Tory losses of 250 to 350 seats, adding: “That will mean one or two headline Labour gains but whether that is good enough for them to be comfortable is a question mark.”
Tory insiders say there are serious jitters about losing the London council of Wandsworth, though Labour said that is unlikely. A senior Tory figure said the area had become more affluent over time, which might usually favour the Tories, but instead it had seen “gentrification with remainers”.
A London MP warned that among middle class, “middle-of-the-road” voters in the south of England, “it’s a Boris problem”.
One senior Lib Dem strategist said the party was looking at possible gains in the new Somerset unitary authority, Oxford, Wimbledon and Woking in the south, as well as Westmoreland and Hull in the north. “We don’t expect significant takeovers of loads of different councils but we hope to see steady progress in the blue seats that are up,” they said.
By contrast, “red wall” Conservatives are quietly confident of holding on to their council seats. –
In key local council fights – such as Bury, Bolton, Wigan and Hartlepool – which will be seen to foreshadow whether Labour will be able to retake or hold seats at the next elections, Tories described voters as angry with Johnson over Partygate, but unwilling to make the switch to Labour.
One Midlands Tory in a newly won constituency seat said: “Logically, we should actually be in a position to make gains, but Partygate and the cost of living are meaning our voters are not reliably turning out. But I’m not detecting people going back to Labour at all.”
A Tory MP in north-west England said they feared that anger towards Johnson was unlikely to dissipate by the next general election, though voters were prepared to keep voting Tory locally because Labour were still seen as the establishment force.
“I think the anger is now a permanent feature. We can, in a sense, get away with it this time because he’s not on the ballot paper. But this is definitely going to be held against us at a general election.”