Rishi Sunak has unveiled a plan to slash rising energy bills for up to 16 million vulnerable people which he hopes will propel him to 10 Downing Street.
In a dramatic move as his Tory leadership clash with Liz Truss becomes increasingly bitter, he is said to be prepared to find up to £10bn to cut bills for poorer households.
And in a swipe at his opponent, the former chancellor declared in an article in The Times: “Whatever the ‘boosterish’ talk of others, you can’t heat your home with hope.”
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As the cost of living crisis becomes the overwhelming issue in the leadership campaign, Mr Sunak wrote: “People need reassurance now about what we will do, and I make no apology for concentrating on what matters most.”
But Mr Sunak’s latest cost of living plan will be attacked by Ms Truss’s supporters as another U-turn and with many party members having voted already in the leadership poll it may have come too late to save him from defeat.
According to The Times, Mr Sunak accepts that his plan to cut VAT on energy bills would cost £5bn, and he would now also find up to £5bn more to help those most vulnerable to rising prices.
He also predicted that as energy prices continue to rise the government would have to raise more money from a windfall tax on energy companies, a move rejected by Ms Truss at the latest leadership hustings in Cheltenham.
Benefits systems is ‘quickest’ way to support people
In his article, Mr Sunak said he would offer specific support to pensioners and those on benefits as they “simply cannot increase their incomes to meet their energy costs and are the most vulnerable in society”.
He said universal credit, winter fuel payments and similar routes would be used to top up their incomes, with the goal of ensuring they were no worse off as a result of rising bills.
Mr Sunak’s team claims that until Ofgem announces the exact level of the price cap later this month, he cannot not promise that he would cover the entire cost of the rise for the most vulnerable groups.
But it was emphasised that it was his intention to cover “as much of the hole as possible”, with households already likely to be £400 to 500 worse off than predicted in May.
In his article, Mr Sunak said if he became prime minister he would extend the scheme he launched in May that provided every household with £400 off this winter’s fuel costs, rising to £1,200 for pensioners and those on benefits.
He said using the benefits system was the “quickest, most effective, targeted way of getting support” to groups of people in the most need and could be put in place before the October price cap comes into force.
“I am unequivocal that, if I enter 10 Downing Street at the start of next month, I will provide the support required to the people who need it,” he said.
“To parents and pensioners losing sleep about looming bills, I want to reassure them that I get it, I am on top of it and I have a plan to grip it.
“I can’t say to the pound and penny what help will be available because we don’t yet know the precise scale of the challenge. but I give you my assurance that as soon as we do, I will. And I will do as much as I can to help.”
Sunak denies plan is a U-turn
Mr Sunak said he would pay for the plan by making savings in some other projects, adding that it might be necessary to “stop or pause some things in government” because “getting people through this winter has to be the first priority”.
But in a move that will be seized upon by the Truss camp, he said he was prepared for “some limited and temporary, one-off borrowing as a last resort to get us through this winter”.
Denying this represented a U-turn – having previously attacked Ms Truss for saying she would increase borrowing – Mr Sunak said their plans were very different.
“Borrowing relatively small sums temporarily in the throes of a crisis to provide targeted support is good, Conservative government,” he said.
“Borrowing permanently for large, unfunded, inflationary spending commitments is a flight of fancy.”
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He added: “You shouldn’t make promises you can’t afford to keep, and unfunded long-term tax cuts without doing the hard work on tackling inflation are not going to be kept.
“That is the basic honest approach to the country’s finances that we conservatives have long prized.”
In a further challenge to Ms Truss, the front-runner to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister, he said the foreign secretary needed to spell out how she would help those for whom October’s price rise is least affordable.
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He said: “The facts are we have days and weeks to act before millions of Britons are left struggling with unaffordable bills. I have set out my plan. It’s here in black and white.
“I call on those rejecting my tried and tested method, to set out in detail how they would get help to those that need it in time before their bills need paying.”