Wednesday briefing: How Boris Johnson could have tackled the cost of living crisis | Queen’s speech | #socialmedia


Good morning. Wow, the Queen’s speech is weird, isn’t it? Black Rod! An MP who gets taken hostage at Buckingham Palace (sort of)! Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer making polite small talk and pretending they aren’t trying to destroy each other’s careers!

The actual content of the speech – which sets out the government’s legislative programme for the next parliamentary session – was also pretty surreal: Prince Charles, standing in for his mother, began by saying that the government’s priority was “to grow and strengthen the economy and help ease the cost of living for families”. He then gave an 874-word speech that had almost nothing to say about either of those things, but plenty on “street votes” to stop your neighbour’s extension and disrupting environmental protests.

For this morning’s newsletter, I spoke to Torsten Bell, chief executive of the Resolution Foundation, about the scale of the cost of living crisis that went ignored, and what the government’s programme is missing that might help to fix it. That’s right after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Brexit | The government is seriously considering unilaterally tearing up parts of the Northern Ireland protocol after the Democratic Unionist party made it a condition of resuming power sharing at Stormont. Theresa May warned that doing so could harm Britain’s international reputation.

  2. Social media | Twitter’s ban on the former US president Donald Trump will be reversed by Elon Musk if he completes a takeover of the social media platform, the billionaire Tesla boss said. Musk called the decision “morally bad”.

  3. Ukraine | President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said his country’s forces are pushing Russian troops back in Kharkiv. Meanwhile Ukraine said it would suspend the flow of Russian gas through the country to Europe.

  4. Coronavirus | Doctors are re-emphasising the importance of Covid vaccination during pregnancy after a study found that vaccines not only protect expectant mothers, but also reduce the risk of stillbirth by 15%.

  5. Media | The prominent libel case between Coleen Rooney and Rebekah Vardy, dubbed the ‘‘Wagatha Christie” trial, began with Vardy saying she deeply regrets unflattering personal remarks about Peter Andre in a newspaper interview.

In depth: What the government could have announced

Boris Johnson proceeds attends the state opening of parliament on 10 May 2022. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

The cost of living crisis has become such a fixture in British political conversation that the phrase might begin to obscure the increasing poverty behind it. The typical household’s income will drop by about £1,000 in the coming year, and the poorest are least insulated from the impact by savings.

That’s before the worst of the impact of inflation and spiralling energy bills even gets here. A new report published this morning by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research finds that 1.5m households across the UK will have food and energy bills greater than their disposable income in the next year.

“It’s big families, and, increasingly, disabled households, where you’re seeing a lot of poverty,” says Torsten Bell, whose thinktank is focused on raising living standards for those on low and middle incomes. “When you listen to people on the lowest incomes, they’re already reporting struggling to pay their bills, making trade-offs they wouldn’t normally.” Here are some of the key takeaways from what the Queen’s speech had to say – and didn’t have to say – about it.


Significant measures on the cost of living are being delayed

The promise of help might have made the top of the speech read by Prince Charles – but in interviews, government ministers say frankly that we won’t see serious measures to soften the impact of inflation for months. “The autumn is when the cost of living is going to be most particularly in focus,” Treasury minister Simon Clarke told the BBC. Earlier, policing minister Kit Malthouse said that spending measures are “really for a budget rather than a Queen’s speech.”

Of course, there’s nothing to stop measures like help on benefits being introduced sooner if the chancellor wants to do so. The bottom line, says Bell, is that “The Queen’s speech won’t make any material difference on the immediate squeeze households are facing. This is not the government trying, despite the pre-briefing, to solve the cost of living crisis.” Even the Daily Mail agrees, albeit arguing for tax cuts rather than benefit increases: “[Rishi] Sunak must not leave it too late,” its leader says today. “Struggling families need help right now.”

Boris Johnson did project a sense of urgency yesterday – telling the House of Commons that there would be “more on this in the days to come”. But shortly afterwards, a Treasury source said they didn’t know what he was talking about.


We’re starting from behind

The delay is to coincide with a rise in the cap on energy bills due in September. Waiting for the budget to take bold steps, preserving as much headroom as possible to deal with any increases in the cost of borrowing in the meantime, might make sense in normal circumstances, says Bell. The trouble is, “there is a pattern in this crisis of being behind the curve. Everyone was warning at Christmas that this was going to be the biggest story of the year.”

The measures in the spring statement “spread the jam wide” and “didn’t prioritise supporting those in real trouble”; meanwhile, a 3% rise in benefits has already been outstripped by the stunning rise in inflation – which looks like it will amount to a real-terms cut of about £11bn. So those who are most in need are already struggling to make ends meet.

“You need to get on with it – there is a real cost to people on low incomes in not telling them what help you’re going to give,” said Bell. “People cut back because they’re scared about getting impossible bills in the winter months.”


There are measures a Conservative government could take today

As Richard Partington explained in First Edition a fortnight ago, the benefits system remains the most efficient way to help those who need it. “We already know we’re going to be increasing benefits by a very large amount next April,” said Bell. “We need to do that immediately.” And if this is simply brought forward rather than repeated, “it’s perfectly possible to provide more targeted support now without increasing spending indefinitely.”

That’s not something you’d expect to see in the Queen’s speech, because it doesn’t require a new piece of legislation – but it would be possible to do it right away. “These debates are definitely live in the Treasury,” Bell said. “They’re thinking about both the principle and the practicalities of doing this.”


Growth is a crucial part of the solution

The government’s other point of emphasis in the Queen’s speech was on measures to stimulate economic growth – and in the long-term that has to be part of the solution, too, Bell says. He points out that a big part of the current crisis is stagnant wage growth over the previous decade.

“We have basically fallen into a trap of low expectations, where low income growth has somehow been normalised and everyone stops thinking about how seriously you can have an impact on that,” he said. “And then when crises come it’s much harder to deal with them.”

The Bank of England expects the economy to be just 1% bigger in 2025 than it is today – 6% down on previous expectations. One stark measure of the problem drawn from Bell’s excellent recent piece for the Fabian Society: if income had grown since 2005-6 in line with previous trends, average income in 2025-26 would be £11,000 higher than it is currently projected to be. That’s a difference of 43%.


There is a shortage of big ideas – and not only from the government

In the Queen’s speech, the government says that its plan for growth is to reduce debt, cut taxes, and “empower local leaders to regenerate their areas”. There’s are optimistic references to a bonfire of regulations and the Brexit dividend. “But the actual substantive measures are very small,” said Bell. “What we do see is the dialling up of traditional Tory deregulation, and the dialling down of ‘red wall’ economics, the idea of making the country a fairer place.”

Nor has Labour come up with an effective way to talk about growth when the overall success of the economy is – like it or not – linked more to banking than manufacturing. “Even if you thought in previous eras the job of the left was simply to ensure that the gains of the growing economy were spread, nobody should think that’s enough for the left in 2022,” Bell said.

And this isn’t a temporary problem. “It’s mad, the idea that the cost of living is a thing for this year, and then it’ll be gone – it’s for the birds,” he said. “British politics is going to be dominated by this until 2024.”

“My overall view is that what it shows is that British politics hasn’t got a lot of ideas at the moment,” he went on. “When you have 1980s inequality with the stagnation of the 2010s coming together, that is a very dangerous place economically, but also for what it does to your society in the medium term. At a time of high inequality and low growth, we’re out of ideas.”


Read more on the Queen’s speech

  • “Charles lapsed into silence, the whole event drifting into anticlimax,” John Crace writes in his sketch. “There was nothing here for anyone to get excited by.”

  • The Guardian’s leader: “Instead of dealing with the very real economic problems confronting the country, Mr Johnson’s legislative programme creates political divisions with opponents.”

  • Rafael Behr says that “The volume of bills being proposed, 38 in all, testifies to a lack of focus and purpose. In the absence of one big plan, there are many little plans to look busy.”

  • Peter Walker breaks down those bills and explains what they mean.

  • In the Spectator, Isabel Hardman writes that divisions between Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson are central to problems with the government’s response to the crisis.

What else we’ve been reading

  • The news that Roe v Wade may fall this summer has left many feeling dejected, but Melody Schreiber takes a look at the states that are working twice as hard to ensure women’s rights. After reading I felt a little more hopeful that maybe all is not lost. Nimo

  • Tim Dowling meets the pet owners switching their dogs and cats to vegan diets. It goes extremely well. Not sure how I’m going to break this to Quincy, who is gazing longingly at a piece of cheese as I write. Archie

  • As Julian Assange’s court date approaches, Duncan Campbell argues that the government should not hand him over to the US. “Anyone who seriously values freedom of expression should support his fight,” Campbell writes. Nimo

  • This illustrated piece by Fahmida Azim, Anthony Del Col, and Josh Adams for Insider from December 2021 is a stunningly powerful account of one Uyghur woman’s escape from a Chinese internment camp. It just won a Pulitzer prize. Archie

  • I found this long read by Alice Sherwood on counterfeit goods of luxury items fascinating. Sherwood examines how and why the counterfeit market has boomed exponentially and whether anything can be done about it. The answers will probably surprise you. Nimo

Sport

Football | Sadio Mane scored the winner as Liverpool completed a 2-1 comeback victory over Steven Gerrard’s Aston Villa to keep their dreams of winning the title alive. Villa had taken the lead through Douglas Luiz in the third minute.

Cricket | The former Surrey and England cricketer Graham Thorpe, 52, is seriously ill in hospital. A statement issued on behalf of Thorpe’s family said that “his prognosis is unclear”.

Football | Manchester City have confirmed a deal to sign Erling Haaland from Borussia Dortmund this summer for £51.5m. Haaland is a “cheat code player”, writes Barney Ronay, but either he or City “will have to change” to succeed.

The front pages

Guardian front page, 11 May 2022
Guardian front page, 11 May 2022 Photograph: Guardian

The Guardian print edition today leads with “Tories ‘bereft of ideas’ to tackle cost of living crisis”. By way of contrast the Express says “Boris promises ‘firepower’ to help hard-hit families”. The i has “PM U-turn on cost of living crisis” saying he has demanded quicker action. The Metro focuses on Charles delivering the throne speech instead of his mother with “Wish you were EIIR” while the Sun has “I hope I did you proud, Mummy” and calls it a “historic moment”. “Death knell for work from home” says the Daily Mail, elaborating that a new law to make it easier was “axed from Queen’s speech”. “Neighbours get the right to vote on housing plans” says the Times while the Telegraph looks at the Northern Ireland protocol with “Truss stands firm in face of EU trade war threat”. “Waggro” – the Mirror reports on the Vardy/Rooney legal battle. The splash in the Financial Times is “Musk pledges to reverse Twitter’s ‘morally wrong’ ban on Trump”.

Today in Focus

Vladimir Putin at the Victory Day parade in Moscow
Photograph: EyePress News/REX/Shutterstock

Vladimir Putin’s Victory Day speech revealed a man facing one of the biggest decisions of his presidency: to escalate or de-escalate the war in Ukraine. Andrew Roth reports.

Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings

Ben Jennings’ cartoon.
Ben Jennings’ cartoon. Illustration: Ben Jennings/The Guardian

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

Refugee puppet Little Amal makes an appearance outside the Ukrainian embassy to highlight the plight of people feeling the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in London, Thursday, 10 March 2022.
Refugee puppet Little Amal makes an appearance outside the Ukrainian embassy to highlight the plight of people feeling the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in London, Thursday, 10 March 2022. Photograph: Alastair Grant/AP

Little Amal, a giant puppet who has become an international symbol of the human rights of child refugees, has been brought to Poland to meet children who have fled the war in Ukraine. Last year Little Amal travelled 5,000 miles across Europe between July and October. The artistic director of the walk, Amir Nizar Zuabi, has said that Amal’s journeys “transcend borders, politics and language to tell a new story of shared humanity.”

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