After the energy shambles, Cameron needs to restore certainty

The timing of this week’s confusion could not have been worse.

The last three days have seen government policy on energy tariffs and decarbonisation in flux. Conflicting statements from the Prime Minister, the Energy Secretary and the new energy minister have caused confusion. While an announcement from Ofgem today has helped provide clarity, confidence in the government has already been undermined. With a group of major energy companies already threatening to withdraw hundreds of millions of pounds of planned new investment in the UK due to policy uncertainty, this week's events will only make matters worse.

At Prime Minster’s Questions on Wednesday, Cameron said, “I can announce that we will be legislating so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers”. The sector was shocked and confused. Not only would this be incredibly difficult to implement, it would also mark the single greatest act of intervention in the energy retail market since liberalisation – not the type of light touch regulation to be expected from a Conservative Prime Minister.

Today, thanks to the release of Ofgem’s Retail Market Review, it has become clear what the Prime Minister should have said. He should have announced that suppliers will be required to tell customers if there is a cheaper tariff, rather than automatically putting customers on the cheapest tariff.

One of Ofgem’s better proposals in the review is for suppliers to only be able to offer four tariffs for each fuel type. This policy was recommended by IPPR in our recent investigation of the retail energy market. This reform will simplify the market and encourage people to switch thereby improving competition, which will help keep bills low.

It should also help to ensure that tariffs are reflective of suppliers’ costs — a major problem since ‘loss leading’ tariffs act as a barrier for new suppliers to enter in to the market and vulnerable and low income people who don’t switch regularly can often be overcharged.

The timing of this week’s confusion could not have been worse. It is only three weeks since Ofgem announced that the spare electricity generation capacity in Britain will fall to a critically low level in 2015/16, raising the prospect of blackouts. With Twitter quick to dub this episode a "combishambles", the government needs to restore certainty and predictably before they publish their upcoming Energy Bill.

Reg Platt is Research Fellow at IPPR. He tweets as @regplatt.

David Cameron speaks with Maltese Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi at the start of the second day of an EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

Reg Platt is a Research Fellow at IPPR. He tweets as @regplatt.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.