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The confusion over Cameron's energy promise comes at a particularly inconvenient time

By Peter Hoskin
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Yesterday, in PMQs, David Cameron announced that “we will be legislating so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers.” It was an announcement that made, for instance, the front cover of today’s Times. Industry spokespeople described it as a “big moment”.

Except there’s a problem, and quite major one: that “big moment” was unscripted and probably shouldn’t have happened. Even yesterday evening, some — such as Channel 4’s Gary Gibbon — were describing Mr Cameron’s promise as “vague”. And today it’s become vaguer still, to the point of non-existence. Answering an urgent question in the House earlier, John Hayes basically confessed that he wasn’t aware of the pledge before the Prime Minister blurted it out, and he would only commit to getting people “lower” tariffs through the “different options to be considered” in the writing of the Energy Bill. In a speech elsewhere, Ed Davey merely said the government would encourage lower tariffs through competition in the energy markets. None of this is quite the same as what Mr Cameron said.

So how to explain the confusion? I’d go with cock-up over conspiracy. As the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman points out, Mr Cameron has a track record when it comes to spontaneous policy announcements which then spontaneously combust. It's probably best to file this one, along with the others, in the folder marked “Oops”.

But while, normally, this might just be embarrassing, here it’s slightly more problematic because of two factors: first, the proximity of other governmental mess-ups, and, second, the fact that the Coalition partners are currently hammering out the details of the Energy Bill between them. Only yesterday, the “Quad” of Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Alexander met to discuss what would go into the Bill; a meeting which was said to be “inconclusive”. There’s still considerable resistance from Mr Osborne to those proposals that Ed Davey is pushing to promote renewable energy sources, such as making the Treasury the ultimate guarantor of loans to energy companies.

It is into this simmering stew that Mr Cameorn's words land. The government knows it has to do something about energy costs, but it is torn between different attitudes towards decarbonisation. Some will worry that it’s another reason for the energy companies to pass costs on to the consumer; others will say that that needn’t be the case, but might add that decarbonisation is too important anyway. The eventual policy may become even less decisive in the middle.


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