PMQs review: Cameron is still struggling to respond to Miliband's price freeze

The PM variously dismissed the policy as "a gimmick", as "left-wing" and "socialist" and as unnecessary when he is taking action: he needs to settle on an attack line.

After criticism of a lack of follow-through after his "one nation" address last year, Ed Miliband made it clear that he has learned from this error by devoting every one of his questions at PMQs to his energy price freeze. Cameron's acknowledgement on Monday that the policy had "struck a chord" gave him an easy way in and he wittily contrasted the PM's response with George Osborne's comparison of Labour's plans to Das Kapital: "Is it a good idea or a communist plot?"

The subsequent exchanges showed that, two weeks on from Miliband's conference speech, Cameron still isn't sure how to respond to the price freeze. He variously dismissed it as "a gimmick", as "left-wing" and "socialist" (adding, in case it wasn't clear, that Miliband inhabits a "Marxist universe") and as unnecessary when he is already putting customers on the lowest energy tariff (a measure that Miliband said would benefit just 10% of households).

A more promising line of attack came when Cameron took aim at Miliband's record as Energy Secretary and declared that the "rules and regulations" he introduced had pushed up prices. In a hint of action to come in the Autumn Statement, he said that the government was going to "go through" and see which it could remove. But with households paying £300 more since 2010 (as Miliband observed), this line will only prove effective once Cameron outlines what measures the governmment will repeal and how this will bring down prices.

Until then, Miliband remains on the front foot. At no other PMQs since he became leader has a policy he announced so dominated the debate. If Cameron wants to persuade the public that he "gets it", he would be wise to drop the "Red Ed" attacks. As I've pointed out before, if Miliband is a socialist, so are most voters. Polls show that around two-thirds of the public support a 50p tax rate, a mansion tax, stronger workers’ rights, a living wage and the renationalisation of the railways and the privatised utilities. By branding Miliband a "socialist" and a "Marxist", Cameron only ensures that voters will be pleasantly surprised by his moderation.

Ed Miliband asked David Cameron of his proposed energy price freeze: "is it a good idea or a communist plot?" 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.