Journal De Bruxelles - Rocketing petrol prices fuel British PM's woes

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Rocketing petrol prices fuel British PM's woes
Rocketing petrol prices fuel British PM's woes / Photo: Niklas HALLE'N - AFP/File

Rocketing petrol prices fuel British PM's woes

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday sought to reset his embattled leadership with a policy blitz to tackle Britain's cost-of-living crisis, including contentious new measures to boost home ownership.

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After narrowly surviving a no-confidence vote among his own Conservative MPs on Monday, Johnson is under pressure to turn the page on a series of scandals including lockdown-breaching parties in Downing Street.

In a speech later, he was to vow "more affordable energy, childcare, transport and housing", according to excerpts released by Downing Street.

"And, while it's not going to be quick or easy, you can be confident that things will get better, that we will emerge from this a strong country with a healthy economy," Johnson added.

The scale of the inflationary crisis hitting millions of Britons was underlined as the price of filling up the average family car topped £100 ($125) for the first time, according to data from the RAC motoring group.

RAC spokesman Simon Williams called it "a truly dark day" for hard-pressed drivers, and urged the government to slash sales tax on petrol and diesel.

The government says much of the crisis is caused by factors beyond its control, such as the impact of the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

But with two difficult by-elections coming up this month, unhappy Tory MPs want bolder measures including tax cuts after 40 percent of them voted against Johnson on Monday.

- Back to the 80s -

Updating a signature policy of 1980s predecessor Margaret Thatcher, Johnson's speech was set to detail a plan to enable more low-income renters to buy their own social housing.

Senior minister Michael Gove told Sky News that "home ownership is not just good for individuals, it's good for society overall".

He vowed the measures would help redress a crippling shortage in housing stock that has seen both purchase and rental prices rocket well out of reach of many Britons, especially younger adults.

But the opposition Labour party noted that the plan would need billions in extra money, which Gove admitted was not on offer, relying instead on existing funding at a time when the Treasury is already trying to rein in government spending.

"By their own reckoning, this will help a few thousand families a year," senior Labour MP Lisa Nandy told BBC radio.

"For those families that will be very welcome," she said, while warning it could make "the housing crisis worse for everybody else".

Britain's newspapers honed in on the surging prices on Thursday, with the Guardian, Daily Mirror and Johnson's former employers at the Daily Telegraph featuring front-page stories on the record fuel costs.

But the conservative Daily Mail declared that "emboldened Boris Johnson will cut bills left, right and centre in his most radical move yet to ease the cost-of-living crisis".

All the papers noted a warning from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that Britain must cut taxes or raise spending, as it forecast the country would have the weakest economic growth in the developed world next year.

- Fight with EU -

Under current Conservative party rules, Johnson cannot be challenged again for a year, which leaves little time for any new leader to emerge before the next general election due by 2024.

But Johnson's Tory enemies still appear to be manoeuvring, with reports that he faces a "war of attrition" and "vote strikes" to paralyse the government's legislative agenda.

Such "vote strikes" hurt Theresa May's three-year stint in Downing Street, before she was brought down in 2019 by Johnson and his allies over how to execute Britain's exit from the European Union.

The government is set to launch another counter-offensive on the Brexit front, by introducing legislation soon to rewrite a pact with the EU governing trade with Northern Ireland, unless Brussels agrees to changes.

Gove denied that Johnson was looking to divert attention following the confidence vote, by placating Brexit hardliners on the Tory backbenches.