Boris Johnson promises to 'improve' UK as he's attacked over 'cost of living crisis'

Boris Johnson has promised to take "bold decisions" to rebuild the UK after the coronavirus pandemic, as opponents made a last-ditch bid to persuade him to keep additional support for low income families.

The prime minister, ahead of opening his party's conference in Manchester, released a statement saying he is determined the UK will not return to its pre-Covid state, outlining his commitment to "change and improve as we recover".

However one thing he is keen to return to is the level of support provided to low-income families through Universal Credit (UC), with the temporary £20 weekly uplift - which was added to help people weather the storm of the pandemic - set to be removed on Wednesday.

The leaders of the three devolved nations told Mr Johnson there is still time for a change of heart, pointing to fears over the “cost of living crisis”, which is being impacted by rising energy bills, inflation and an upcoming increase to National Insurance.

Despite the increased cost of living, Mr Johnson was unable to rule out further tax rises on Sunday morning, but said he will avoid increases if he "possibly" can.

He said the decision to end the temporary uplift in Universal Credit and hike taxes to fund the NHS and social care were necessary as part of the package to rebuild after the pandemic.

The heads of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland administrations said withdrawing the £20-a-week uplift in UC would leave millions across the UK facing an “unprecedented squeeze” on their household budgets.

Scotland's Nicola Sturgeon (left), Northern Ireland's Paul Givan, and Wales' Mark Drakeford wrote a letter urging the PM to change his mind. Credit: PA

The move to press ahead with removing the uplift has been widely condemned by charities and opposition parties while many Conservative MPs are also deeply concerned about the impact on low-income families.

In a joint letter to Mr Johnson, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford, and the First and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Paul Givan and Michelle O’Neill, said the UC lifeline is being withdrawn "just as the country is facing a significant cost-of-living crisis".

“This winter millions of people are facing an untenable combination of increases to the cost of food and energy, rising inflation, the end of the furlough scheme, and an imminent hike to National Insurance contributions.

“There is no rationale for cutting such crucial support at a point when people across the UK are facing an unprecedented squeeze on their household budgets.”

Asked to rule out further tax hikes, Mr Johnson said: "You have no fiercer and more zealous opponent of unnecessary tax rises than me, but we have had to deal with a pandemic on a scale which this country has not seen before in our lifetimes and long before."

He added: "If I can possibly avoid it, I do not want to raise taxes again."

The prime minister has repeatedly rejected calls to cancel the cut to UC, saying he believes the way to support struggling families is by helping them to earn more money by working more.

He says he wants the UK to move to a "high-wage, high-skills economy" as it takes steps out of the pandemic.

In a statement released on Saturday he declared: “We didn’t go through Covid to go back to how things were before – to the status quo ante.

“Build back better means we want things to change and improve as we recover.

“That means taking the big, bold decisions on the priorities people care about – like on social care, on supporting jobs, on climate change, tackling crime and levelling up.”

But behind the optimism, Conservative MPs heading to the city are aware of a number of storm clouds gathering.

While the fuel crisis appears to be easing in much of the country, petrol retailers have warned that the situation is getting worse in London and the South East.

With long queues at many filling stations, military drivers will take to the roads on Monday in an effort to support the delivery of supplies to forecourts.

There are fears that the shortage of HGV drivers which triggered the crisis could lead to empty shelves in shops in the run up to Christmas.

Writing in The Sun, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer blamed Mr Johnson for the “chaos” accusing the Prime Minister of ignoring repeated warnings from the industry.

Sir Keir Starmer said Labour would replace Universal Credit with ‘something better’ Credit: Andrew Matthews/PA

“Boris Johnson was warned about this crisis and he did nothing about it. Britain deserves better than this incompetence and total lack of leadership,” he said.

Some Tories, meanwhile, fear the Government is facing a “cost of living crisis” with many households struggling to make ends meet over the winter, threatening the Government’s all important “levelling up” agenda.

The devolved leaders criticised the government, saying a £500 million hardship fund announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak to provide discretionary payments to the most vulnerable was a “wholly inadequate” replacement for the £6 billion provided through the uplift.

“To support a meaningful recovery from this pandemic we must first ensure the needs of our most vulnerable are met,” they said.

Long queues for petrol continue in London and the South East Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA

“This cut threatens to undermine the recovery by diminishing the capacity of six million people to make ends meet.

“It is not too late for you to reverse the decision to take money out of the pockets of the poorest in society at a time when they are facing a serious cost of living crisis.”

A Government spokesman said: “We’ve always been clear that the uplift to Universal Credit and the furlough scheme were temporary.

“They were designed to help claimants through the economic shock and financial disruption of the toughest stages of the pandemic, and they have done so.

“Universal Credit will continue to provide vital support for those both in and out of work.”