For once, yesterday’s Downing Street press conference included a worthwhile question, and not of the 'why aren’t you locking us down?' variety. In fact, it had nothing to do with Covid at all. Harry Cole of the Sun asked why, given that the Prime Minister had once cited the ability to remove VAT from fuel bills as a tangible benefit of leaving the EU, he was not now taking advantage of his new-found freedom, especially as bills are heading sharply upwards. Boris Johnson mumbled something about not wanting to help people who could easily afford their energy bills and that the government might consider more targeted help instead.
That is not going to wash with the many low-income households that voted Conservative for the first time in 2019 on the back of Johnson’s Brexit deal. The government already does offer low income households help with bills in the form of the Warm Home Discount, which offers £140 payments towards winter bills — and it is presumably more of that kind of help which the Prime Minister envisages. Yet the Warm Home Discount offers little to what Theresa May liked to call the just about managing classes. You have to be receiving benefits to qualify, and your energy supplier has to be part of the scheme. Worse, if you don’t qualify you will be paying for the scheme instead of benefitting from it — it is one of the many ‘environmental and social levies’ which currently make up 25.5 per cent of electricity bills.
Johnson’s previous statement about Brexit giving us the freedom to remove VAT from energy bills did not amount to a manifesto promise — it was made during the referendum campaign when he held no government office. Nevertheless, that he now feels unable to enact a small reform which he had so clearly cited as a benefit of leaving the EU will irritate a large number of people, leading them to ask how serious he really was about taking advantage of Brexit.
If the government is to survive the onslaught in the cost of living when the energy cap is raised and National Insurance Contributions are jacked up by 1.5 per cent this spring, the Prime Minister is going to have to get on top of the situation extremely quickly. But the VAT issue raises a particular problem of its own, threatening to eat away at the vote of those who switched to the Conservatives in the hope that Britain might become a different country following Brexit. So far, there is little sign that the government has seized the initiative.