The Conservatives are worried that voters are deserting them over the rising cost of living, yet their leader has managed to fluff an announcement designed to remedy that problem. Yesterday at Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron surprised the whole chamber and the department concerned by announcing a brand new energy policy.
In response to a question from Labour’s Chris Williamson about what the government was doing to help people reduce their energy bills, Cameron said:
‘We have encouraged people to switch, which is one of the best ways to get energy bills down. I can announce, which I am sure the honourable gentleman will welcome, that we will be legislating so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers – something that Labour did not do in 13 years, even though the Leader of the Labour party could have done it because he had the job.’
That this was one of Cameron’s policy-on-the-hoof moments was underlined by the fact that he was responding to a question from a Labour MP, not a planted one from a loyal Tory backbencher. Then his spokespeople struggled to brief journalists on any further details other than what the Prime Minister said, which was that apparently energy companies will ‘have to give the lowest tariff to their customers’. The Energy and Climate Change department appeared surprised by the policy. Energy companies were also rather astonished and said they were urgently seeking further details of this new policy and how it would affect their business. The implications for those companies’ business models did seem rather large. Today Caroline Flint told MPs at Energy questions that the Prime Minister of ‘making it up as he goes along’.
It is not unusual for Cameron to do this. I remember as a housing journalist covering his surprise announcement that he wanted to end tenancy for life in social housing. Just like yesterday’s PMQs, this slipped out during a PM Direct event and took the department responsible, Communities and Local Government, by surprise. I later learned that the PM had apologised to ministers responsible: he said he hadn’t meant to let that policy – which they were planning and were in favour of anyway – slip at that stage. Indeed Cameron was apparently so worried that he might let slip the backroom preparations for a coalition in the run-up to the 2010 election that Rob Wilson writes in his book ‘5 Days to Power’ that the Conservative leader told those involved to keep him out of the loop as much as possible.
So this morning, the prime minister’s official spokesman told journalists that ‘we are going to look at the various options, set those out in the bill and put the obligation on the energy companies to offer the lowest tariffs to more people’. That is so different to the language the Prime Minister used yesterday that it appears to be a different policy.