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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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