Tory MPs should force a general election. Or, failing that, ensure Liz Truss's damage doesn't cause UK economy's downfall – Christine Jardine
Her high stakes gamble with our economic future turned out to be a busted flush. Although she is due to leave the table in less than a week, the damage that has been done both by the mini-budget which trashed the pound and the dizzying U-turn which followed will cast a long shadow.
Families, pensioners and businesses are coping with the impact of inflation and interest rates on household bills and mortgages even greater than they were before. While we might only have days to wait until the Conservatives present us with a new Prime Minister with their own particular brand of chaos, the future picture of our economy remains unclear.
And the industries on which we depend for our livelihoods find themselves battling in the dark as they wait to discover what the latest Chancellor, if he is still in place, has for us in his Halloween box of tricks.
The drinks industry for example is central to the strength of our local and national economic well-being. More than 11,000 people are directly employed in the sector with tens of thousands more dependent on the wider hospitality industry of which it is such an important component part.
But that very industry is one which is now trying to digest the potential implications of a government U-turn on taxation which has left them, if not high and dry, then without the certainty they need to plan their futures. This time last week they were anticipating a freeze on duty which they had long campaigned for and had been promised by Kwasi Kwarteng in his one outing at the despatch box as Chancellor.
The move was widely welcomed across the industry, as recognition of a lesson learned by the Exchequer, it seemed, that duty freezes benefit the Treasury. But now the decision to reverse the freeze in excise duty could see Scotch whisky alone hit with one of the largest tax rises since excise duty was introduced in 1643. It could mean that more than three-quarters – 78 per cent – of the cost of the average bottle of whisky goes directly to the Exchequer in tax. That 16 per cent increase in duty would translate into at least £1.35 on every bottle sold in the UK.
Apart from the negative impact on both the industry and people’s pockets the increase would further fuel the inflation which is already blighting our economy and compound the cost pressures companies are facing with already-significant supply chain volatility. The Scottish Whisky Association recently discovered that nearly a third of their member businesses have seen an increase of more than 100 per cent in shipping costs in the past 12 months. They expect that to rise further, perhaps by more than another 50 per cent in the coming year, while, like every other office, factory and household in the country they are facing escalating energy costs.
And it is not just the whisky and spirits giants like Diageo, with its headquarters in Edinburgh, but every pub, restaurant and licensed shop across the country which will feel the impact. Our hospitality and tourist industries are the biggest contributing sector each year to the UK’s economy. It is hard to imagine how our export figures might look without whisky, gin or vodka. Or what the loss of the tourist spend and hospitality might mean for our national economic well-being.
We look to our governments for stability and confidence. But in the chaos and incompetence which has been the hallmark of this government since 2015, any sense of stability already shaken, is gone. Confidence is a commodity in short supply.
So, when Jeremy Hunt, if he is still Chancellor, comes to the despatch to offer a third response to that mini-budget which had such a major fallout he should bear in mind the implications of what that U-turn, if he sticks by it, will be. A double-digit tax rise for beer, wine and spirits will not only hit the industry, but will hit consumers already cutting back. Pubs, restaurants, and shops already struggling will be closer to shutting their doors forever this winter.
They are not the only industry or individual employer waiting to see how the chips will fall in this game of political Russian roulette in which our ruling party has indulged. Certainly, the political cost for the Conservative Party of the debacle of the past six weeks has been high, but unless they can get their act together quickly the cost for all of us could be even greater.
My inbox has been inundated since Thursday with people calling for a general election as the only way of restoring public confidence. That choice is one which, for the moment, only the Conservative government can make. But if public pressure continues to mount, and they cannot solve the internal differences which have now impinged on all our lives, their backbench MPs may take matters into their own hands and side with the opposition in a no-confidence vote.
It will come as no surprise to read that is the option I would most like them to take. Not for party political reasons but because I cannot bear to see what is being done to our country, our incomes and our futures. Surely that is something that we all share in this, unless of course you somehow believe that crashing the markets is an acceptable mistake to have made.
In making that catastrophic error of judgement, Liz Truss facilitated her own downfall. Her temporary, tempestuous leadership has left her political party in peril. It will be the job of the next Prime Minister to ensure she has not facilitated the economy’s, and with it the country’s, downfall, too.
Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West
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