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The Tories cannot afford to waste any more time

Imagine Westminster as a 1980s Chicago classroom in which an economics teacher scans the sullen ranks of pupils asking, “Boris? Boris? Boris?” The prime minister has less than a month left in office and, like Ferris Bueller on his day off, he seems to have disappeared. In his political pomp it was nigh-on impossible to get Boris Johnson off the television.

In a normal summer season, appearing to give up on governing would not matter so much. But this year is different. Anxiety at the looming economic crisis is spreading. When energy bills soar to a fresh high in a few months’ time and thousands contemplate civil disobedience, voters will rightly be asking: where on earth was the government?

Some ministers are working on contingency plans, but this is a moment that demands the attention not only of the current prime minister but the next one. Ben Houchen, the influential Conservative mayor of Tees Valley, has correctly noted that neither Rishi Sunak nor Liz Truss “fully appreciates and understands” the scale of what is happening.

As the Tory leadership race passes its halfway mark, the two contenders are tearing chunks out of each other. But when one of them takes office on September 6, he or she must put the rancorous tone of this contest behind them and launch a serious plan. Here is what it could look like.

First, the next premier should form a “quad” of ministers to take critical decisions throughout the winter. Under the coalition government of 2010-15, a senior quad of two Tory and two Liberal Democrat ministers proved highly effective in governing through economic turbulence. A similar arrangement of, say, the prime minister, chancellor, business secretary and energy minister should meet daily.

Second, the new leader will need a council of external economic advisers to challenge groupthink, share experience and expertise, and thrash out policy options. Johnson tried something like this, convening regular meetings with the former Bank of England governor Lord Mervyn King, economist Gerard Lyons, Baroness Minouche Shafik of the London School of Economics, and former Treasury aide Rupert Harrison. Mirroring the scientific Sage committee, this advisory group should be formalised.

The next chancellor is likely to be current business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, if it is prime minister Truss, or health secretary Steve Barclay if Sunak pulls off an unexpected triumph. Both are already in the cabinet, but there is no reason they cannot start preparations for an emergency Budget in September.

Immediate action on energy bills will also be vital. The most straightforward course is to cut VAT on energy — as proposed by Sunak. When Alistair Darling cut the tax in 2008, it was announced on November 24 and came into effect on December 1. The next chancellor can roll it out within weeks.

Parliament will then take a break for the annual party conferences where the Tories and Labour will try to rally the faithful behind competing visions for dealing with this crisis. A Conservative plan must be rooted in the experience of ordinary voters — not the theoretical effusions of rightwing think-tanks that have taken up too much airtime during the leadership race.

The next major intervention will be needed in October when the energy price cap is raised. Truss has shied away from “handouts” yet offers no convincing alternative. The answer may be for the government to intervene on energy prices, combined with additional fiscal transfers. Some will complain that is un-Tory, but the alternative is unpalatable.

The first 100 days of the next administration will be the most challenging faced by a new leader since the second world war. The UK has already endured a summer with its government missing in action. It cannot afford to waste any more time.

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