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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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

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.