PMQs review: Miliband's price freeze shields him from Cameron's assault

The PM raised his game but he is still struggling to change the subject.

After last week's massacre, David Cameron arrived better armed at today's PMQs (or energy questions as it will surely soon be retitled). He sought to unsettle Ed Miliband by quipping that the Labour leader had adopted "Tory policy" by switching suppliers and cleverly framed the party's decarbonisation target as a "price rise". In an acknowledgment that the PM had raised his game, the Tory benches roared him on.

But against Cameron's assault (rarely has he sounded more furious), Miliband's price freeze remains a powerful shield. Every time that Cameron attempts to change the subject, he can reply 'why don't you support our policy?' The PM's stock response that it is a "price con" still fails to convince. After Cameron's reference to him changing suppliers, an unfazed Miliband replied: "The only thing people need to hear is, if they want someone to stand up to the energy companies, they need to switch the Prime Minister."

Midway through the session, he revealed how Labour intends to put Cameron on the spot by challenging him to amend the Energy Bill to introduce a price freeze. Borrowing the trick regularly used by George Osborne on welfare, I expect Labour to introduce its own amendment and challenge the Tories and the Lib Dems to vote it down.

Confronted by Miliband's "cost of living" offensive, Cameron's instinct remains to shift the debate back to the macroecnomy. He boasted that the UK was forecast to grow "almost three times as fast as Germany" and declared that Miliband was "hiding behind this economically illiterate policy because he can’t talk about the economy". But Cameron should be wary of relying this line of attack. To most voters, after all, living standards are the economy.

In a sign of his frustration at the political success of the policy, the PM derided Miliband as a "one trick pony" (an attack line that Labour will look to prove wrong next week with a major speech from Miliband on wages), but as the Tories are learning to their cost, there is a lot of life left in this trick yet.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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