'No Good Whining/ About a Silver Lining'

We would be remiss if we did not note in these (digital) pages the death of Nigel Lawson, one of Britain's great proponents of sanity in politics, and particularly in the latter years of his life, climate sanity. Lawson was one of the forces behind the success of Thatcherism, serving in several key roles in Margaret Thatcher's government, culminating in his 1983 appointment as Chancellor of the Exchequer. In that position he became the driving force behind cutting the U.K.'s unsustainably high taxes and reforming the country's cumbersome financial regulations. British business was reinvigorated, leading directly to what is known as the "Lawson Boom," which saw unemployment cut in half and a budget deficit of £10.5 billion in 1983 transformed into a budget surplus of £4.1 billion by the time he resigned 1989.

Of particular interest to us at The Pipeline is Lawson's late-career turn as one of Britain's few skeptics of the received environmentalist narrative. As described by Net-Zero Watch — a publication of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which Lawson founded — he first became interested in the subject of global warming after reviewing the correspondence of senior government bureaucrats on the subject which he said demonstrated “a combination of ignorance and obfuscation that was indeed worthy of Sir Humphrey,” the manipulative civil servant on the BBC comedy Yes, Minister. According to Andrew Montford, Lawson was "Intrigued by the wrongheadedness of it all" and inspired to do something about it.

In his role as chairman of the House of Lords Economic Affair Committee, he persuaded his colleagues to launch an inquiry into the economics of climate change. Almost unique among subsequent Parliamentary inquiries, the witnesses included a number of eminent scientists who were on the sceptical side of catastrophism, as well as the usual chorus of the climate alarmist faithful. Such scrutiny was never to be repeated.

Beyond that, he wrote the surprise best-seller, An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming (for which he'd initially struggled to find a publisher), and in 2009 helped found the GWPF, an organization which has the very large task of pushing back on the climate hysteria of essentially every other institution in British life.

Lawson at left, with his famous boss.

On that score, it is worth noting that most of the ostensibly conservative figures and publications memorializing Lawson in recent days have passed over his decades-long war on the environmentalist narrative entirely (Britain's current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, wrote a tribute to Lawson which contains exactly zero words on the subject, perhaps unsurprisingly given Sunak's own green proclivities), while Left-leaning sources have brought it up continually, apparently in the hopes of painting him as a kook. That said, The Guardian's obituary did a pretty good job of articulating his position: "Lawson claimed that economic growth should not be slowed down to prevent a possible eventuality, but that policy should be made pragmatically in response to what had already happened."

But for some undiluted good sense, read Lawson himself. A good place to begin would be with the final article he wrote for The Spectator, the conservative magazine he edited before his entrance into electoral politics. Entitled "Net-zero is a disastrous solution to a nonexistent problem," it hits all of Lawson's familiar notes — the benefits of atmospheric CO2; the ability of humans to adapt to the (slight) increases in temperature we've seen in recent years which may-or-may-not be attributed to carbon dioxide increases; modern environmentalism as a replacement for the religion of old; and most importantly the unimaginable cost of what the other side is proposing.

In his own eulogy of his father, son Dominic Lawson wrote:

On his 80th birthday party in 2012, which George Osborne kindly hosted at 11 Downing Street, my father astonished not just the chancellor but the other seventy or so guests when, over coffee, he got up, walked over to the piano and declared: “Lock the doors so nobody can escape.” He then announced that he would sing some songs by Noël Coward, starting with There Are Bad Times Just Around the Corner. As in: “There are bad times just around the corner/ There are dark clouds hurtling through the sky/ And it’s no good whining/ About a silver lining/ For we know from experience that they won’t roll by.”

He was the rare British politician who understood these things, and we are unlikely to see his like again anytime soon.

Private Jokesters, Public Enemies

One year ago Canadian truckers drove into Ottawa, halted their trucks outside Parliament, and held an impromptu fiesta to protest the anti-Covid regulations that instructed them to accept vaccines in order to safeguard the world from harm as they made their lonely drives along the great North American expressways. It wasn’t the first protest against the anti-Covid lockdowns and other regulations—there had been many in Europe and North America—but it was the first such demonstration that won mass sympathy around the world. It marked a turning point.

As more and more people shared their doubts with each other, they realized that doubters like themselves were in the majority. What happened next is called a “preference cascade”: it’s the moment when everyone wakes up and says: “Hey, that man behind the curtain is an emperor, and he hasn’t got a stitch of argument on.” An orthodoxy sustained by groupthink began to crumble. How had governments worldwide been led into imposing the long lockdown nightmare? At the time I argued that it had happened like this:

  1. Governments had panicked, cast aside their original pandemic planning (based on protecting vulnerable groups), and decided to suppress the virus by locking down entire societies.
  2. The forecasts supporting this policy were false or exaggerated. Covid-19 killed people; but its infection fatality rate was low, most of its victims were elderly people with pre-existing conditions; and “excess deaths” from all causes were quite low.
  3. But these realities were concealed by suppressing medical information that contradicted the orthodoxy, censoring scientists who dissented from it, and by “nudging” people to accept lockdown policies at a subconscious level with campaigns rooted in fear.

There had to be a better way—and there was. While Britain had been following the lockdown orthodoxy, Sweden had adopted a less restrictive model: reliance on the personal responsibility of ordinary citizens to make sensible choices. What did a comparison show? Britain’s death rate was almost twice as high as Sweden’s; its accumulated indebtedness was twice as high; and its economic recovery much slower.

Matt Hancock: "frighten the pants off everyone."

Even governments now began to crumble too. Rishi Sunak, then the U.K.’s Chancellor of the Exchequer and now its prime minister, gave an interview in which he revealed that there had never been a proper cost-benefit analysis to test the lockdown decision against other policy options; described how he had secretly gone to private sector researchers to compare official forecasts of future risks against their findings; and he discovered that the official figures were massively wrong.

This interview had less impact than it deserved. Too many people had an interest in not making a bigger fuss about it. It wasn’t only ministers and officials who had backed the wrong policies—the opposition parties, the media, the BBC, the medical journals, and the Whitehall scientists had mostly been calling for a tougher lockdown approach and more restrictions on personal liberty. They weren’t interested in exposing themselves. Something more was needed to get people's attention. And then was heard a shot from a smoking gun.

In order to write his own account of how he had helped to save Britain from Covid-19, health secretary Matthew Hancock who had been forced to resign for unrelated reasons (i.e., he was caught cuddling a senior advisor on security cameras, thus violating his own Covid regulations on personal distancing), gave his ghost writer, Isabel Oakeshott, a stack of WhatsApp messages between himself and other ministers at the center of the management of lockdown politics.

Isabel Oakeshott, whistleblower.

When the Hancock-Oakeshott writing team had finished their manuscript and sold it to The Times, Ms. Oakeshott coolly took the treasure trove of informal discussions between all the senior lockdown players and then she handed it to the Daily Telegraph, the Times’ main rival broadsheet. And for the last week the Telegraph has been breaking scoop after scoop revealing the foolish, unconstitutional, undemocratic, and absurd ways that the lockdown decisions were imposed by a few politicians high on their cut-price authoritarianism in full technicolor on a wide screen.

One example will suffice: In a WhatsApp conversation that included the prime minister, a Downing Street aide said: “Sorry for this, but the biggest Q of the day for our finest political journalism is: can I see my boyfriend of girlfriend if we don’t live in the same household?” Well, he at least had the grace to be embarrassed. But the government’s chief scientific advisor replied quite soberly that “the aim is to break contacts between households, so the strict answer is that they shouldn’t meet or should bunker down in the same house.” Fortunately the chief medical officer advised caution: it would be better to make this “advisory,” he thought, since a “sex ban” might invite mockery.

Good guess. Nonetheless, what to do about this acute national problem rumbled on lower down the civil service ranks for several weeks.

How could such things happen? The surprisingly simple answer is that a small subset of cabinet ministers, civil servants, and scientific advisors in key positions—prime minister Boris Johnson, Hancock, the head of the civil service, Simon Case, the chief medical officer, Chris Witty, etc., etc.—removed political decision-making from both parliamentary debate and scrutiny and from the full cabinet in order to made the management of the crisis more timely and efficient. They further concentrated power by determining that since Covid-19 was a medical crisis, they should be advised principally by a committee of doctors when they needed advice from a range of experts from different disciplines (if only to be aware of new problems and the inadequacy of some solutions).

With such a limited range of advice and without the benefit of informed scrutiny, they exaggerated their own capacities, took draconian power over peoples’ freedoms, and ran campaigns to frighten them into accepting that these extraordinary powers were necessary. Inevitably, they kept making more mistakes because, having frightened the public and themselves into a panic, they felt that they needed to keep announcing new measures to calm the public down again, thus making new mistakes, and thus refusing to correct them.

That’s how the entire descent into worldwide panic started. A British cabinet already equipped with a pandemic strategy accepted and praised by the World Health Organization was given extraordinarily high forecasts of likely Covid-19 deaths from Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College in London. But the cabinet abandoned its original strategy and embarked on a lockdown that confined people to their homes and strangled the economy.

Unfortunately, both the British government’s example and the prestige of Imperial College influenced other governments, especially those in the Anglosphere, which then imposed their own lockdowns, so Jacinda Ardern closed down New Zealand entirely, Scott Morrison made Australia a prison for its citizens, Justin Trudeau required Canadian truckers to get vaccinated for no particular reason, and . . . the whole massive stupidity started to unravel.

Shouldn’t the Canadian truckers be getting the Nobel Peace Prize about now? Maybe sharing it with Isabel Oakeshott?

Rishi Sunak: the Worm Turns

Writing a few days ago on Britain's new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, this author expressed some hope that his decision to reimpose a nationwide ban on fracking (a ban which Sunak had opposed when standing for leader, it should be noted), "was merely Sunak recognizing the reality on the ground, which is that fracking isn't particularly popular among elected MPs," and suggested this objectively bad decision would be offset by other, saner resource sector tweaks. Sunak himself argued that the platform the party was elected on in 2019 promised a fracking ban, and he felt bound to respect that. Fair enough.

But now Sunak has deflated those hopes. After saying on several occasions that he had no intention of attending this year's United Nations Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt (known as COP27), Sunak has once again changed course, and while spouted hackneyed warmist jibberish to boot:

Sure, Rishi, all of human prosperity depends upon the rich-and-powerful flying their private jets to Egypt to sit around in air conditioned rooms talking about how important you all are.

Sunak's elevation has been widely touted as a return to "grown-up" governance. But, as the British journalist Ben Sixsmith points out in a piece about Sunak, to call a major politician "a grown-up" is to damn him with faint praise. "Grown-up" in politics, Sixsmith argues, is a codeword for someone who makes journalists feel all warm and fuzzy inside. They invariably wear nice suits, have sensible haircuts, and speak fluidly and confidently when a microphone is in their face. What they say is of little importance.

This writer is less certain on that last point. To me, the title "grown-up" is bestowed by the media upon those who have promised not to offend elite sensibilities on any important topic. It isn't a partisan designation -- there are plenty of ostensibly right-of-center figures who have been so complimented, with George Bush the elder, John McCain, and Mitt Romney being standouts in this category. Of course, it is worth mentioning that ultimately losing elections is what allowed those three to maintain their "grown-up" status.

This is something Rishi should probably take note of as he begins his Green-ward turn. Meanwhile, his change-of-heart is winning praise from all of the wrong people in British life. For instance:

Funny how the Strange New Respect a move like this inspires can't even sustain itself for the life of an entire tweet.

The Coming Struggle to Stay Warm

One of the first columns I wrote for The Pipeline almost three years ago employed the metaphor of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object to forecast the likely consequences of Green politics. The irresistible force was the imposition of a policy of Net-Zero carbon emissions upon the populations of the West, in particular those of Anglosphere, and the immovable object was the democratic electorates of these countries.

It might take time, I argued, but when the voters found that Green Deals and such meant higher energy prices, higher taxes, immiseration of the less well-off, and harshly puritan lifestyles for the rest of us, an almighty smash-up would ensue.

And so it has. Indeed, the smash-up has come sooner than I expected, namely this year, and it will almost certainly be harsher because the negative impact of Net-Zero has been aggravated by the Russo-Ukraine war and sanctions adopted by the U.S. and the E.U. in response to it.

To stop train, pull handle. But think first.

What I didn’t expect, however, is that the smash-up would take place in slow-motion. But that is what’s happening.

Almost wherever you look, there’s some not-very-important story that tips you off to a subterranean explosion whose full impact won’t be properly felt for a while. The effect is something like the delayed impact of depth charges or deadpan jokes.

Here, for instance, is the London Daily Telegraph telling us that the Brits will be wearing new styles of underwear this winter—and not because they’re hoping for a more exotic sex-life:

Households are stockpiling thermal underwear to avoid turning on the heating this winter as energy bills spiral. John Lewis, Britain’s biggest department store chain, said shoppers had rushed to buy warmer clothes in recent weeks, with sales of winter thermals having doubled last week compared to a week earlier. Sales of dressing gowns are up 76pc compared to last year.

That’s the precautionary principle reduced to the bare essentials. Like everyone else in the northern hemisphere, ordinary Brits are expecting a chilly winter this year because of the following factors (which didn't start with Mr. Putin’s war); Like most Western governments, the U.K. powers-that-be have neglected to invest enough in energy security because they quite consciously preferred to invest in transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable forms of energy. That is the orthodoxy of Net-Zero (sometimes enforced by treaties) in E.U. countries such as Germany, non-E.U. countries like Britain, and the U.S.

It’s a massive enterprise because until recently fossil fuels provided more than 85 percent of total energy to even the most technically advanced economies. In pursuit of this vision of a future of all-renewable energy, Germany has shut down almost all its nuclear power stations, keeps equivocating over whether the shut down the few remaining ones, and ends up relying on “dirty coal” now that cheap Russian energy is as unreliable as "renewables."

California, dreaming...

Over the Pond the Biden administration has been refusing to license oil-and-gas explorations on federal land with the embarrassing result that it has to import oil from Venezuela. And the U.K. government too has banned “fracking” that would exploit the nation's plentiful reserves of natural gas. As a result almost all of these countries are facing the risk of energy shortfalls to the point at which energy “blackouts” and rationing are seriously entertained by utilities and regulators if the winter is severe. California too.

Moreover, the costs of transitioning to renewables are not only high, they are rising. The International Energy Agency has just revised its estimate of the investment needed to limit global temperatures to meet the Net-Zero target under the Paris Accords upwards. That will now rise from the 390 billion dollars annually today to 1.3 trillion dollars a year between now and 2030. If met, those targets would eliminate emissions from the energy sector by 2035 in the advanced world and by 2040 in developing countries. But they are unlikely to be met. On present trends Net-Zero won’t be achieved until 2060—and present trends look too optimistic in the light of the present energy crisis.

The upshot of which is that almost all the West’s governments face slightly different versions of two serious problems: uncertain energy supplies, and existing high indebtedness.

Take energy supplies first. Germany is facing a serious crisis of its fundamental economic model in the post-Ukraine world, Its two foundations were exporting cars to China and importing cheap energy from Russia. For the foreseeable future, neither now looks like a reliable prospect or even a possible one. Berlin must now struggle to replace the Russian energy half-forbidden by the sanctions it supports diplomatically.

Artifacts of an ancient civilization, if Greens get their way.

Similarly, because Britain neglected nuclear investment—its target of 25 percent of energy from nuclear power stations will be reached in 2050!—the country is heavily dependent on imported natural gas which it needs to solve the renewables’ “intermittency problem”: there are days when the wind doesn’t blow nor the sun shine. As Andrew Stuttaford points out, that makes the earlier decision of the U.K. government to close down its biggest natural gas storage capacity an especially shortsighted one. Even the French, who sensibly went nuclear in a big way in the 1970s, now have to spend on repairs and modernization.

What of the second aspect of the crisis: overspending? Two sorts of spending need to be financed here—that for Net-Zero, and that to finance the energy security national governments have neglected. Unfortunately, however necessary they are, they come on top of the massive sums of money that the same governments have already spent during the Covid-19 pandemic on locking down their economies and paying their people to stay at home. That backlog of indebtedness explains why the financial markets are becoming nervous of lending money to governments that don’t make financial responsibility their top priority. Interest rates are rising again in response to rising inflation, and that's a problem for governments that want to borrow money.

We saw that very recently when the British government fell because the markets thought it was adopting a cavalier attitude to debt. That impression was both exaggerated--the U.K.’s national debt as a percentage of GDP is one of the lowest in Europe--and largely the result of rash but trivial political misjudgments by ex-Prime Minister Liz Truss and her Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng. All the same, the market brought them down because they were planning to add to an already high total of government spending.

Long johns, here we come.

When that happens, every spending program becomes the enemy of every other program. If restoring energy security becomes a priority for governments, then spending on Net-Zero will—and should—come under pressure. After all, Britain's short financial crisis became a political one in part because it was leading to a rise in mortgage payments. Like rising sales of warm thermal underwear, rising mortgage payments are another symptom of the price that the Brits will be paying for ill-judged energy policies. Voters' shoes are beginning to pinch; the immovable object is beginning to stiffen.

Of course, the irresistible force (in the form of support for Net-Zero from an alliance of the establishment and radical Green anarchists) has neither vanished nor much diminished. At almost every stage it has objected to policies that looked likely to prioritize energy security over the transition to renewables. With the arrival of a new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, it has been flexing its muscles to warn him that it will tolerate no lifting of the ban on fracking that the doomed Liz Truss tried to bring about. Net-Zero is an obstruction to restoring the energy security that it undermined in the first place. The circle closes.

My impression is that Sunak is taking his time to assess what Leonid Brezhnev used to call “the correlation of forces.” On the one hand, he has said that he will keep the ban on fracking unless evidence appears that suggests it is not dangerous to the environment; on the other, he has decided not to attend the U.N.’s COP 27 Climate Summit on the grounds that, in effect, he’s got more important things to do in London. My translation: he doesn’t want to attend and be trapped into making commitments on Net-Zero that might later be inconvenient to his overall energy and budgetary policies.

He may also think that Winter when the snow falls and Britain’s bedrooms freeze will be time also when the irresistible force of Net-Zero becomes much less irresistible and the immovable object of voter resistance much more resistant. And irremovable.

No Fracking Please, We're British

When last we looked in on the soap opera of British politics, Liz Truss had resigned as prime minister after 44 days in office, and it looked likely that the recently-defenestrated Boris Johnson might be on his way back in, much more quickly than even he had imagined. Well, Johnson himself scuppered that possibility, deciding at the last minute that he didn't have enough support among the Tories in parliament to govern effectively, and withdrawing himself from consideration. That left Rishi Sunak, who had placed second to Liz Truss in the long form leadership race just a few weeks ago, as the only serious candidate, allowing his colleagues to declare him the winner without all of the hassle of having to consult the actual members of the party. Very neat and tidy, that.

In any event, among his first acts as prime minister was to reimpose the Johnson's governments ban on fracking, which Truss had briefly done away with. Reversing what was perhaps the best policy of his predecessor -- one which laid the foundation for dealing with the country's long-term energy needs after years of environmentalist arglebargle -- doesn't speak well of him. Perhaps, as Andrew Stuttaford suggests, this was merely Sunak recognizing the reality on the ground, which is that fracking isn't particularly popular among elected MPs, even those in his own party, and that "this was not a drill worth dying on." The roundabout way that this policy was announced -- half-heartedly in an exchange in the House of Commons, with a confirmatory press release later -- suggests that this might be the case.

Stuttaford continues, "It will be more interesting to see if he retains Truss’s plans to issue up to a hundred more licenses for oil and gas. His past record suggests that he will, which is encouraging." Lets hope for the sake of the country that he does.

Still, this issue is not going to go away. As so-called renewables fail to live up to the promise of utopians, nations without reliable energy sources will be increasingly left behind. Some will lean into nuclear. Some will bring back coal. Some are blessed with oil and natural gas; and if they want to remain major powers, they'll make use of it.

And some will just return to the Stone Age, which has been the goal of "environmentalists" all along.

As Truss Falls, Does BoJo Loom?

Things are moving so fast in British politics that by the time this post goes to (digital) press, it's possible the U.K. will have gone through several more prime ministers, and Meghan Markle will be crowned queen.

Here are the basics: Newly minted prime minister Liz Truss has resigned after just 44 days on the job, the shortest ever term for a prime minister. She came into office hard on the heels of Boris Johnson, who resigned after he was caught lying about violating his own government's Covid restrictions on several occasions.

Determined not to be merely a caretaker P.M., Truss immediately initiated a bold -- some would say "foolhardy" -- plan to transform the British economy by slashing taxes across the board, with the biggest cuts for businesses and the wealthy, while also increasing spending. Much of that spending would go towards an energy "price freeze," which would cap the amount that Brits would pay for heat and electricity going into what is looking to be a brutal winter for heating and electricity rates. The bill for such a plan was projected to run into the hundreds of billions of pounds, but her hope was that it would it would keep the heat off her government while her Thatcher-on-steroids tax plan supercharged the economy and brought about elephantine growth.

The Iron Lady she wasn't.

Now here's what actually happened. The markets were disturbed by these sudden movements, and by the massive amount of new debt the government would have to take on to make this all work, especially at a time of significant and rising interest rates. Sterling tanked and bond markets went crazy.

Truss vowed that she would not change course. Then she started changing course, with new back-tracking announcements becoming an almost daily occurrence. She sacked Kwasi Kwarteng, her right-hand man and Chancellor of the Exchequer, in a desperate attempt to hang onto power, and appointed the establishmentarian, globalist, anti-Brexiter Jeremy Hunt to take his place. Hunt promptly got to work dismantling the rest of Truss's program.

Eventually the pressure got to be too great. After a tense vote on a Labour bill whose object was to prevent the government from reintroducing fracking, which the Tories won, despite several notable defections, the humiliated Truss was compelled to offer her resignation.

What is so strange about all of this is that it is easy to imagine a counterfactual scenario where Truss turned out a success. She ran for leadership as a continuity candidate: Boris, but without the erraticism, dishonesty, and drama. That was a pretty attractive proposition! Had she actually governed that way, pushing back on some of the negatives of the Johnson government while generally trying to steady the tiller, she might have had a long and illustrious career.

Kicking Boris' environmentalism to the curb would have been a good start -- Britain has a lot of natural gas, but environmentalists have been lying to the people about natural resource extraction for years. The politics site Guido Fawkes, for instance, recently wrote about a speech in the House of Commons by former Labour leader Ed Miliband about the possibility that fracking would bring with it earthquakes registering a 4.6 on the Richter scale, which could crack the plaster in houses and cause notable damage. This is ridiculous -- though fracking has been known to trigger tremors, they're rarely strong enough to be felt, only to be detected by powerful instruments. The strongest one ever, according to Fawkes, was a 2.9, which is comparable to "a pound of sugar being dropped on a kitchen floor."

Ask not for whom the bell tolls.

Boris famously leaned into this misinformation, including in his farewell speech as prime minister. A successful Truss could have checked it, while noting the absolute necessity of developing domestic energy sources in light of growing scarcity. Doing so wouldn't have required abandoning all Boris' plans. It could even have reinforced some of them. There's an obvious match between his "leveling-up" project, meant to improve those forgotten, working class regions of England's north (where he scored a stunning success in the last election), and the jobs which an expanded resource sector could provide.

At the Telegraph, Lord Frost even argues that Truss could have gone ahead with her own program, had she actually laid the groundwork for it over time:

Truss tried to deliver worthwhile reforms and set the country onto a much-needed new direction. I supported this policy direction and still do. But it was rushed and bungled. The markets were spooked. The mistakes were opportunistically seized on by her opponents to undermine her leadership, to blame Brexit, and to stop the party getting out of the social democratic tractor beam of the past few years.

In any event, yet another party leadership race will be held as soon as possible to determine who will govern, with Rishi Sunak -- the wealthy establishmentarian who came in second to Truss last time -- seen as the front runner. Unless, that is, Boris Johnson decides to throw his hat into the ring, as voices both inside and outside parliament have started calling for him to do.

Unfortunately for the Conservative Party, polling seems to indicate that the British people are getting sick of this ongoing Tory psychodrama. The Labour Party has started calling for an early election, which they are in a good position to win. And losing might ultimately be good for the Tories -- having squandered a huge mandate with Johnson, they could do with a good long stretch in opposition to figure out what they actually stand for.

Still, as Labour's policies; fiscal, social, and environmental; are so much worse than those of the Tories, the country as a whole would probably be much better off if they would just get their act together. Don't hold your breath.

In Britain, the Time Bell Rings

Observing the United Kingdom sailing headlong into a sea of troubles over energy and inflation, a cynic might well say: “Lucky Boris Johnson—he was forced out of power at exactly the right moment. Someone else will now have to carry the can.” It’s true that Britain’s economic troubles, which were already growing, have metastasized dramatically in the last few months, two in particular—a general rise in all-round inflation to 10 percent and a still sharper rise in regulated gas and electricity prices from $2,331 now to $4,237 in October and $5,026 in January.

Together they add up to a massive “cost of living crisis.” And because they grow out of deeply-rooted problems and self-destructive policies in the U.K.’s long-term economic strategy, it will take time and tough remedies to eradicate them.

As always, however, there seems to be an inexhaustible supply of people lining up to carry the can. About a dozen senior Tories put forward their names to succeed Boris at the start of the Tory leadership election. They were whittled down to two of Boris’s ministers—former Chancellor Rishi Sunak and current Foreign Secretary Liz Truss—who are fighting a battle of debates on economic policy across the country in front of Tory voters and activists. We’ll know the result by September 5, with Truss now the favorite.

Truss: ready to lead?

[My own snapshot take: she’s the better bet on supply-side and de-regulation policies to improve productivity and revive British industry; he’s the safer pair of hands on financial and budgetary policies to restore a stable financial framework that would help the economy to expand without overheating. But both should be more prepared to cut state spending and borrowing.]

Whoever wins the premiership then, however, will have to face a general election within about 28 months. Given the severity of Britain’s problems, the Tories will undoubtedly face an uphill battle. That means Sir Keir Starmer, Leader of the Opposition, must now be taken seriously as a potential prime minister.

And indeed Sir Keir, a progressive left-wing lawyer before entering politics, whose usual pained expression is that of a man who has just swallowed a live fish out of politeness at a diplomatic dinner, and who has been struggling to make an impact on the electorate, has been given a shot in the arm and buoyancy in his step by the crisis.

Labour is demanding the recall of Parliament to debate the “cost of living crisis.” That’s quite a shrewd demand since Johnson is now a “caretaker” Prime Minister who constitutionally has to leave all major decisions to September the 5th and his successor. Starmer's attack on the Tories as a “do nothing” government in the face of the cost of living crisis then carries more weight. By contrast, he was able to step up to the plate with his own remedies in a speech that was better received than any earlier efforts and proposed solutions that according to opinion polls are in tune with the popular mood.

Those solutions—an energy price “freeze” paid for by the $34 billion proceeds of a higher windfall tax on oil and gas producers— are not new. They have been kicking around the Labour party’s thinking on energy since two leaders ago. And when Rishi Sunak himself was chancellor only a few months back, he introduced a much milder $6 billion version of the same thing which he delicately called a “temporary, targeted energy profits levy” of 25 percent. (It came accompanied by a 90 percent tax relief for firms that invest in oil and gas extraction in the U.K.)

Starmer: I can see No. 10 from here.

The problem with such “concessions” to opposition attacks and the popular mood is that they concede the principle without satisfying the demand. Worse, they make Labour’s proposals look like common sense to which the Tories are offering only a miserly response.

Commonsense is a rare and valuable commodity in public life, but economics is one of the very few areas where it can’t be applied wholesale. Commonsense suggests that we should charge lower fares for railway journeys at rush hours when the trains are crowded and uncomfortable. Economists respond that we should charge higher fares then and lower fares at off-peak times to encourage people to travel in less crowded and more comfortable conditions at all times. If we ignore them, commonsense ensures that we end up strap-hanging for hours in cattle cars.

In the same way the economically sensible response to higher energy prices is to devote state assistance to cash subsidies to the consumer—with larger subsidies going to poorer people for whom energy is a bigger proportion of their total spending. People then get to decide whether to devote this increase in their income to energy, to food, or to their other household needs. They know those needs better than “the Man in Whitehall.”

Given this full responsibility over how to spend their total income, they would be free to change their behavior by, for instance, using less power than usual. Moreover, high electricity prices, for instance, would give them further encouragement to do so, thus reducing demand for electricity, oil, and making a gradual start to solving the energy crisis in general.

O, lucky man!

So much for the demand side. On the supply side, as long as prices remain high—and any decline would likely be gradual—energy companies would have the incentive of high profits to search for new oil and gas fields and to re-open old ones closed in response to regulation. (We already see that happening.) Even as demand was being moderated by high prices, supplies of energy would be encouraged and increased by them. The energy market would come into balance, and other things being equal, prices would fall.

Which is why a windfall-profits tax is both mistaken economically and unjust ethically. A bold claim, I hear you say. But as it happens, with help from an old friend and colleague, Philip Lawler, I wrote a classic article on the Case against a Windfall Profits Tax thirty-three years ago. Originally I “ghosted it” for the U.S. Treasury Secretary, William Simon, who a few years later gave me permission to publish it under my own name which I have now done in National Review and the Spectator Online.

Immediately on entering office in 1981, Ronald Reagan blew away a  ramshackle maze of overlapping agencies and bureaucratic bafflegab; de-controlled energy prices and production; and led the world into a sustained three-decade boom floating on a sea of cheap oil and gas. It looks as if the Brits have decided to go in the opposite direction—and if Labour wins in 2024, with their foot on the accelerator.

Net-Zero and the Fall of Boris Johnson *UPDATED

The hot race to replace Boris Johnson as Prime Minister of Britain coincides with a record-breaking (though brief) heat wave that is summoning all of the usual clichés about climate change. But most Britons seem to be treating the heat with a shrug, understanding that heat waves sometimes come with what used to be known as “summer.”

Less recognized in the heat of the moment is the role extreme climate policy has played in the downfall of Johnson. The dominant narrative is that Johnson alienated his Tory colleagues in the cabinet and on the back benches with his hypocritical violation of Covid rules in his private parties, along with some scandal-ridden appointments, while the larger public soured on Johnson’s foolish embrace of draconian lockdown restrictions, along with a tax and fiscal policy one might have thought Johnson pinched from the Labour Party.

But the media, and even most Tory leaders, are reserving hushed tones for the role of Johnson’s fanatical embrace of “Net-Zero” energy policy (meaning a carbon-free energy supply by the year 2050). The energy policy of the Johnson government was indistinguishable from what Jeremy Corbyn’s Labourites would have imposed had they won the 2019 election.

Or maybe not, depending on the next election.

Possibly because Britain was on tap to host the U.N.’s annual climate shakedown (known as COP 26) in Glasgow in 2021, Johnson somehow thought he had to be a “climate leader,” pledging among other reckless things to close all of Britain’s coal-fired power plants by 2024. Coal plants scheduled for closure this fall are now going to be kept online, even as the International Energy Agency in Paris recommended this week that Europe as a whole burn more coal on account of the soaring price and scarcity of natural gas—a scarcity that is entirely the political creation of western European nations that thought Russia was an honest and reliable partner that would supply the right amount of natural gas while Europe persisted in its fanciful green dreams of running their economies on windmills.

Needless to say, the price of coal has risen more than the price of oil and natural gas in recent months. And how is Britain getting through the current heat wave? They’ve brought on 5 gigawatts of additional natural gas power because wind and solar power can’t be ramped up. Natural gas is currently supplying between 50 and 60 percent of Britain’s total electricity—a source that would fall to zero if “Net-Zero” was really implemented.

Despite the breathless hand-wringing about the heat wave and the first-ever “Extreme Red Notice” issued by the government, Britons know that the death toll from winter cold is much larger than casualties from a brief summer spell of unaccustomed warmth. There are credible forecasts that utility rates may spike so sharply this winter that many households won’t be able to afford them, and there is talk of the government having to open “warming shelters” to keep people from freezing to death this winter.

Blighty: warm and lovin' it.

Which brings us back to the contest to succeed Boris, who has so far made no acknowledgement that his climate policy was misguided. His aspiring successors are ever so slightly putting some distance between themselves and Johnson on this issue. The New York Times is dismayed that “climate change does not appear to be a priority” in the race for party leadership, and indeed the leading candidates are treading gingerly on the topic, with most affirming their general commitment to Net-Zero, while indicating that they intend to back off somehow.

All four remaining candidates after the first rounds of winnowing said they would at least impose a moratorium on new “green levies” to subsidize more renewable energy. All seemed to recognize that the public does not support the extreme greenery Johnson suicidally embraced, and indeed a recent poll of Tory voters by the Times of London found that only 4 percent thought "climate change" should be one of the top three priorities for the next government. Front-runners Rishi Sunak -- the former Chancellor of the Exchequer whose recent resignation was the proximate cause of Boris' downfall --  and Penny Mourdant, the trade minister, both say that energy policy “shouldn’t hurt people,” which means they are at least paying attention to the rising cost of green ambitions to ordinary rate-paying citizens.

(L-R) Penny Mordaunt, Liz Truss, Kemi Badenoch, Rishi Sunak,

Two candidates have been more bold in breaking with climate orthodoxy. Foreign secretary Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, has said she’d lift the ban on fracking for natural gas, but Kemi Badenoch  -- now out of the running -- was the only person in the field who has said she might be open to scraping Net-Zero entirely if it threatens to bankrupt Britain (which it does). Badenoch, a conservative daughter of Nigerian immigrants, distinguished herself for being resolutely anti-woke in her stint as “minster for equalities,” directly attacking critical race theory and issuing an official report that denied Britain is “institutionally racist,” which infuriated the cultural left. A Badenoch government would have offered the virtue of supremely annoying the two most vocal segments of leftist opinion—environmentalists and race-mongers. She also supported Brexit.

It is notable that the final four candidates at the beginning of the week included three women. With Badenoch out, by later today the race will be down to two, one of whom will obviously be female unless the Biden administration’s gender classifications somehow take hold in Britain. Nice to see that regardless of gender, the next British government appears to be backing away from Net-Zero nonsense.

UPDATE: Liz Truss will face off against Sunak. The winner, and thus new Tory party leader and prime minister, will be announced on Sept. 5.