Cameron's The Thick of It-style energy pledge unravels

Government forced to backtrack on surprise announcement that companies will be forced to offer customers the lowest tariff available.

David Cameron's surprise announcement at yesterday's PMQs that energy companies will be forced to put all their customers on the lowest tariff available was yet another The Thick of It moment from a government that has supplied many. The Department of Energy appeared not to have been briefed on the proposal, with officials struggling to offer any detail on the policy. A spokesman eventually fell back on the line that the coalition was looking "at all options" to help consumers get the lowest tariffs.

For the record, here's what Cameron said yesterday:

I can announce 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.

This morning, it's no clearer where the government stands. There was, perhaps unsurprisingly, no minister available to discuss the subject in the 8:10am slot on the Today programme. It appears probable that Cameron's pledge was "a slip of the tongue", as a spokesman from USwitch, the energy comparison website, surmised.

After Cameron's words in the Commons, a spokesman for the PM said:

We've asked energy companies to take action themselves and make clear what the lowest available deals are. The point is, in practice this market is not operating for everyone. A small minority of people are actually switching deals, therefore we need to push some of this responsibility on to the energy companies.

But there's some difference between pushing "some of this responsibility" on to the energy companies and compelling them to offer customers the best deal available.

In his conference speech, Ed Miliband memorably asked, "Have you ever seen a more incompetent, hopeless, out of touch, u-turning, pledge-breaking, make it up as you go along, back of the envelope, miserable shower than this Prime Minister and this Government?"

Based on the latest farce, the answer is probably "no".

Update II: In humiliating scenes in the Commons, energy minister John Hayes has just been forced to backtrack on Cameron's pledge. In response to an Urgent Question from Labour, he said the government would "use the energy bill to get people lower tariffs [emphasis mine] and of course there are different options to be discussed in that process." Cameron, by contrast, had promised to force companies to give their customers the "lowest" tariff.

Update: Thankfully, the Speaker, John Bercow, also takes the view that the government should be forced to explain itself. He's granted an Urgent Question on the subject at 10:30am.

David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street as he heads to the House of Commons. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.