The government's Energy Statement was an Annual Excuses Statement

We have an out-of-touch Prime Minister who would rather announce endless reviews and consultations than stand up to the big energy companies.

Today’s Annual Energy Statement could not have come at a more important time. Energy prices are rising three times faster under this government than the last, bills are up by £300, and the latest price rises will add another £100 this winter. For people in fuel poverty, the gap between their bills and what they can afford is at an all-time high.  But for the companies, the mark-up between wholesale costs and the prices they charge grows ever-wider.

Soaring energy bills are contributing to a cost-of-living crisis which urgently needs tackling. Today’s Energy Statement gave the government the chance to set out what they would do to stand up for hard-working families. But what we heard today would be better described as the Annual Excuses Statement. There were excuses for why people’s bills are going up, excuses for why they’re doing nothing about it and excuses for why each and every time it happens, the government backs the big energy companies rather than standing up for consumers.

There’s a pattern emerging here. The energy companies blame social and environmental obligations for their price rises – so the Prime Minister promises to roll them back.  Threatened by Labour’s price freeze plans, the energy companies clamour for yet another review to kick the issue into the long grass – and lo and behold, the government announces a review.  

Only three weeks ago, energy Greg Barker told the BBC that idea that government levies were responsible for bill rises was "nonsense". But now, boxed in by a Prime Minister who’s not willing to stand up to the energy companies and a Chancellor who actively courts climate change deniers in his own party, the government says they’re to blame. 

As for the announcement of yet another review of the market – it’s not going to tell us anything we don’t already know. We know the market is broken. The last review by Ofgem - fully backed by the government - only concluded in June. This review is nothing more than a smokescreen, designed to disguise the fact that we have a Prime Minister who stands up for the big energy companies, rather than for ordinary families.

There was one further announcement from the government today - encouraging people to switch from one company to another. But no amount of tinkering with tariffs, telling people to shop around, or, as David Cameron suggested, wearing another jumper, will solve the real problem with Britain’s energy market. Because even the cheapest tariff in a rigged market will still not be a good deal. If people switch anything, they should switch Prime Minister, to somebody who will stand up against the energy companies.

Today’s Energy Statement gave ministers yet another chance to tell us what real action they would take to reform the energy market and help hard-pressed consumers with sky-high bills. But once again, they have shown they have no answers. We have an out-of-touch Prime Minister who would rather announce endless reviews and consultations than stand up to the big energy companies.

Consumers need real action now to tackle the soaring cost of living.  That’s why we need a Labour government to deliver Ed Miliband’s energy price freeze promise, which would save money for 27 million households. And, because the market is broken, Labour would take real action to reset it, and create a tough new regulator to stop the public being ripped off and deliver fairer prices in the future.

Families and businesses are being overcharged but we have a Prime Minister more interested in standing up for the big energy companies than standing up for consumers. We need to freeze bills and totally reset the market so it's working for consumers. And that's what a Labour government will do.

Caroline Flint is shadow energy and climate change secretary

David Cameron with Energy Secretary Ed Davey at the Clean Energy Ministerial conference in London on April 26, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why there's never been a worse year to leave the EU than 2017

A series of elections will mean Britain's Brexit deal will be on the backburner until at least January 2018. 

So that's it. Theresa May has invoked Article 50, and begun Britain’s formal exit from the European Union.

Britain and the EU27 have two years to make a deal or Britain will crash out without a deal. There are two ways out of that – firstly, it's possible that Britain could withdraw its invocation of Article 50, though the European Court of Justice has yet to rule on whether Article 50 is reversible or not. 

But if the government reaches the end of the two-year window, the timetable can only be extended with the unanimous agreement of not only the heads of the 27 other member states of the European Union, but the United Kingdom as well. Although both sides would suffer economic damage from an unplanned exit, no-one has done particularly well betting on economic self-interest as far as either Britain or the European Union in general is concerned, let alone when the two’s relationship with another is the subject.

For May in particular, the politics of extending the timetable are fraught. Downing Street wants Brexit done and dusted by 2019 to prevent it becoming a destabilising issue in the 2020 election, and in any case, any extension would provoke ructions in the Conservative Party and the pro-Brexit press.

But the chances that the EU27 and the UK will not come to an agreement at all, particularly by March 2019, are high. Why? In a stroke of misfortune for Britain, 2017 is very probably the worst year in decades to try to leave the European Union. Not just because of the various threats outside the bloc – the election of Donald Trump and the growing assertiveness of Russia – but because of the electoral turmoil inside of it.

May will trigger Article 50 at exactly the time that the French political class turns inward completely in the race to pick François Hollande’s successor as President enters its final stretch. Although a new president will be elected by 7 May, politics in that country will then turn to legislative elections in June. That will be particularly acute if, as now looks likely, Emmanuel Macron wins the presidency, as the French Left will be in an advanced state of if not collapse, at least profound transformation. (If, as is possible but not likely, Marine Le Pen is elected President, then that will also throw Britain's Brexit renegotiations off course but that won't matter as much as the European Union will probably collapse.) 

That the Dutch elections saw a better showing for Mark Rutte's Liberals means that he will go into Brexit talks knowing that he will be Prime Minister for the foreseeable future, but Rutte and the Netherlands, close allies of the United Kingdom, will be preoccupied by coalition negotiations, potentially for much of the year.

By the time the new President and the new legislative assembly are in place in France, Germany will enter election mode as Angela Merkel seeks re-election. Although the candidacy of Martin Schulz has transformed the centre-left SPD's poll rating, it has failed to dent Merkel's centre-right CDU/CSU bloc significantly and she is still in the box seat to finish first, albeit by a narrow margin. Neither Merkel's Christian Democrats or Schulz's Social Democrats, are keen to continue their increasingly acrimonious coalition, but it still looks likely that there will be no other viable coalition. That means there will be a prolonged and acrimonious period of negotiations before a new governing coalition emerges.

All of which makes it likely that Article 50 discussions will not begin in earnest before January 2018 at the earliest, almost halfway through the time allotted for Britain’s exit talks. And that could be further delayed if either the Italian elections or the Italian banking sector causes a political crisis in the Eurozone.

All of which means that May's chances of a good Brexit deal are significantly smaller than they would be had she waited until after the German elections to trigger Article 50. 

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