As a former prime minister, John Major always speaks with care, which makes his intervention in the energy debate all the more striking. At a press gallery lunch this afternoon, he attacked the energy companies for price rises that were "not acceptable" and called for the government to impose an "emergency excess profits tax" on them (citing the cost of increased Winter Fuel Payments). He said:
"Sod’s Law is that we will probably have a very cold winter and it is not acceptable to me, and it ought not be acceptable to anyone, that many people are going to have choose between keeping warm and eating. That is not acceptable.
"And so if we get this cold spell, the government will have to intervene and if they do intervene and it is costly, I for one would regard it as perfectly acceptable for them subsequently to levy an excess profits tax on the energy companies and claw that money back to the Exchequer where their primary job is to get the economy working and back to work."
While he dismissed Ed Miliband's proposed energy price freeze ("a good heart but his head has gone walkabout"), his words help legitimate the Labour leader's crusade against the "big six" and encourage the impression that the government is standing idly by. In an echo of Miliband's recent rhetoric, Major warned that many people would have to choose between "keeping warm and eating" this winter.
The question now is how the Tories will respond. Ahead of the Autumn Statement on 4 December, George Osborne was surely already considering a windfall tax as a riposte to Labour's price freeze (several Tories have mentioned the idea to me), but Major's intervention removes the element of surprise that the Chancellor craves (although it's worth asking whether this is a calculated act of kite-flying).
Despite this, Osborne could still do far worse than simply embrace the former PM's proposal. A windfall tax would be viewed as less interventionist than a price freeze (helpfully rejected by Major) and could be justified pragmatically on fiscal grounds. Labour, which imposed its own windfall tax in 1997 (ironically attacked by Major at the time), would argue that a price freeze is superior, but would struggle to oppose an emergency levy. On this occasion, Osborne should follow Oscar Wilde's advice and remember that "talent borrows, genius steals".
Update: No. 10 has issued the following statement on Major's comments: "This is a very interesting contribution to the debate. But we have no plans for a windfall tax."
In response, it's worth noting that the Tories similarly claimed that they had "no plans" to raise VAT before the last general election (before doing just that). Downing Street could have rejected the idea of a windfall tax entirely. Instead, it has kept it in play.