Good morning. There is never a good time for a prime minister to take a holiday, but some moments are worse than others, and Boris Johnson is in Marbella in southern Spain at a moment when the energy crisis is still raging, and one of his ministers has been on the airwaves denying plans for a move to a four-day week. (Younger readers may not get the reference, but in the 1970s the Heath government briefly ordered factories to operate for just three days a week because there was a national energy shortage.)
Last month the focus was on what rising gas prices would mean for domestic heating bills, but now the government is worried about the impact on industry because sectors that consume large amounts of energy in the production process, like steel, are warning that they might have to close factories soon because their operating costs are rising too high. These producers have been asking the government for help, but so far nothing has been forthcoming and yesterday Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secrtary, was rebuked by the Treasury when he claimed that he was already in talks with the chancellor about some sort of bailout.
Further talks between the sector and the government are taking place today.
This morning Gareth Stace, the director general of UK Steel, the trade body for steel producers, said that Johnson should not have chosen to be on holiday now. He told LBC:
I’m sure [Johnson] can get on the phone and get talking to them but to my mind, now is not the time for a prime minister to be on holiday, from the steel sector point of view …
This is a critical time. The business secretary has also said it’s a critical situation, and therefore why is government just sitting on its hands and doing absolutely nothing at the moment?
From my point of view, today, with the reported government infighting between the Treasury and BEIS [the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy], the prime minister now needs to bang ministerial heads together, take control and remember that if he does nothing, then his levelling-up ambition will be left in tatters.
Stace argued that levelling up was at risk because many of the energy intensive industries sustain a lot of well-paid jobs in the north of England.
Here are some of the other lines around this morning on this story.
- Damian Hinds, the security minister, defended the PM’s right to take a holiday. He told Sky News:
I wouldn’t want to overstate the amount of unwinding and relaxing you get to do as prime minister because as I say you are constantly in touch, you are constantly being briefed and you remain in charge of the government …
What is important for the rest of us actually, for the whole country, is that the prime minister does get to have some family time, does get to have a break.
- Hinds said the government would not institute a four-day week. He told Sky:
We live in a country where the government doesn’t set the pattern of the working week. Thank God we don’t live in the 1970s.
- Stace urged the government to follow the example of Italy, where the Italian government has reduced some of the extra costs added to the energy bills of industrial consumers. He said:
We’re asking very much the same because when government says ‘We’re not going to do any bailouts’, that’s not what we’re asking for.
What we’re asking for is, ‘hey government, we’ve been telling you for a decade that your policies add something like £55m that we pay in the UK, as the steel sector, that our competitors in, say, Germany don’t pay.’ Historically that puts us at a competitive disadvantage.
- The Chemical Industries Association has warned that some of its members may have to close factories soon unless they get help with energy bills.
- Mark Harper, a former Tory chief whip, has said that he would be opposed to a wide-ranging bailout for producers heavily reliant on energy. On the BBC’s Westminster Hour last night he explained:
My judgement looking at the energy market is the high level of gas prices looks like it’s going to continue for a considerable period of time. So you’re not talking about helping these businesses for a few weeks. This is potentially the taxpayer, that’s people listening to this programme, being on the hook for very significant amounts of money potentially all the way through next year. You’ve got to be very careful before you make those financial commitments on behalf of taxpayers.
Normally the Commons would be back on the Monday after party conference season but this week it’s on recess (a happy coincidence for the prime minister), and so the diary looks relatively light. But we will be getting a Downing Street lobby briefing at 11.30am.
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