Cameron’s Worst Quarter-Hour

John Rentoul

pmqs23 Camerons Worst Quarter HourWell, that went worse than expected. I commented on Independent Voices just before Prime Minister’s Questions that Sir John Major’s contribution to the energy prices debate had been “surprising, unhelpful”, but I assumed that David Cameron would do his last-minute cramming. That his advisers would devise and he would memorise three lines that would get him through Ed Miliband’s entirely predictable questions.

But no. It would seem that the Prime Minister thought he could talk about rolling back green taxes and regulations, and a review of competition in the energy market, call Miliband’s price freeze a “con”, and that would be enough.

It wasn’t. Miliband pursued exactly the line a sixth-former could have anticipated. He had his plan, Sir John Major had a windfall tax, what was the Prime Minister’s policy?

Cameron didn’t have one. He wanted, I think, to say that he didn’t need one because the Labour plan makes no sense. Which is true, although the real Labour plan is the jargon-led “reset” of the market rather than the price freeze. But John Major had trashed that defence. Anyway the voters don’t like free markets when prices go up and they think profit is a dirty word during recessions.

So he had to come up with something. I believe in intervening in the energy market, he said. But he doesn’t really. His thing about putting people on the cheapest tariff is a transparency measure to make the market work more fairly and efficiently; it is not an intervention as Miliband’s or Major’s is.

Perhaps what Cameron should have said is that he agreed with Major that Miliband’s price freeze is a daft idea, and he thought that Major’s idea was much better and worth looking at. Which it is, economically. He should have announced an inquiry (journalists love inquiries) into whether the energy companies are indeed making “excess profits” and promised to implement Major’s windfall tax if they are. That is, after all, what his “annual competition review” amounts to. It is not at all clear that the companies are making “excess” profits on the generating business – they certainly aren’t on the retail side – so it would do no harm to promise action if Ofgem or whoever finds that they are.

Instead, Cameron had his worst quarter of an hour on the floor of the House of Commons, in which he failed completely to hold the attention of MPs as he read from a boring Labour briefing document. It will have done him no harm to have been told off by the Speaker for the use of the phrase “con man”, but for the first time he looked like a prime minister at bay, and his side knew it.

And no one asked about the closure of the Grangemouth chemical plant or the threat to the refinery there.

Update: Just to give you a better idea of how badly Cameron did, here is Hopi Sen on what he should have said.

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  • JohnJustice

    I’ve also looked at Hopi Sen’s piece. Milband’s questions and responses recorded there were so good I thought that these were the ones that had been made up.

  • newfriendofed

    Ha ha! Agreed!

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