Cameron on the Andrew Marr Show: articulate but vague

The Conservative leader is a showman, but he is still weak on policy

Having just watched David Cameron on the Andrew Marr Show, I feel a little as if I've just witnessed a conjuring trick at a children's party -- puffs of smoke, but no real magic.

As expected, the Conservative leader was articulate, polished and smooth, but also slippery and frequently vague, failing to give conclusive answers to the big questions.

In a studiously calm tone of voice, he repeated the words "modern" and "compassionate" ad nauseam, invoking the spirit of Tony Blair when he said:

I haven't made these changes some wheeze to get elected. This is who I am; this is what I am.

But he didn't actually explain what exactly it is that he is. As Marr said at the end of the interview: "I still don't know whether you are a radical or a central manager."

The focus was on message and image, rather than conviction or ideology. For example, Cameron used the "very, very frank, and clear, and positive" Conservative commitment to ringfence the NHS budget as evidence of a reformed party. This rhetoric describes the image that the party hopes to convey with the pledge, but does not offer any detail about why it has ringfenced health spending, or how it will deal with the implications. In response to Marr's suggestion that this could force cuts of up to 20 per cent for other departments, Cameron fell back to his default position: "I don't know the figures, but at least we're admitting there will be cuts."

Similarly, when Marr pushed Cameron on George Osborne's scathing criticism of government plans to increase National Insurance, the Tory leader made a virtue of vagueness. Unable to commit to reversing the NI increase, Cameron declared: "This shows that we're being very disciplined -- we will not pledge to get rid of it until we work out how." He defended his confusion over marriage tax breaks on the grounds of "responsibility", too.

Of course well-thought-out policy is desirable, but it seems that this notion of "responsibility" is being invoked as a smokescreen to disguise a simple fact: the Conservatives don't have all the answers. Repeat something enough, after all, and eventually it will stick.

Disappointingly, Marr didn't pick up the issue of inheritance tax, though Cameron himself made a nod to it when he said that Labour was sending an anti-aspirational message: "Don't leave money to your children." The Tory leader utterly refused to engage with issues that were embarrassing to him. He interrupted Marr to speak about his "strong team" when the presidential style of that giant poster was mentioned, and when asked what Lord Ashcroft thought of the pledge that all peers should be UK taxpayers, he said: "He's very happy about it."

Cameron did make a few policy announcements, aimed at small businesses. These include reducing the time it takes to start a new business in the UK, making insolvency levels more lenient to stave off bankruptcy, and legal reforms to allow everyone to start a business from their homes. He also said that the Tories would impose an annual cap on immigration and tighten up the student visa system.

But these are relatively small measures. Cameron said he prided himself on bringing the Tories away from fringe issues and into the mainstream debate on areas such as health and education, but this is irrelevant if he does not engage in any sustained and detailed way.

His appearance today confirmed what we already knew: he is a showman, but policy is still a weak point for him and his party. Labour must subject these spectacularly vague statements to proper scrutiny, as it did with the marriage tax proposals before the disasters of last week took hold. Retrieving that momentum may be the only way for Labour to save itself from a crashing defeat.

 

PS: Having blogged several times about The Poster of our boy Dave, I must give special mention to his (pre-prepared, I would guess) joke about the airbrushing fiasco: "I didn't have anything to do with it, but Samantha did say to me, 'If that was airbrushed, get your money back.' "

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off the  relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarms, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon those made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.