The Tories' cost of living offensive starts with a whimper

The pledge to cap rail fare increases at 6% is unlikely to impress commuters who have suffered 11 years of above-inflation rises.

At the Conservative conference last week, both David Cameron and George Osborne used their speeches to deride Ed Miliband's focus on the "cost-of-living crisis" on the grounds that it was a distraction from the primary task of 'fixing' the economy. But while doing so, the Tories have also recognised that the Labour leader is onto something. 

The day after Cameron's speech it was briefed that the party would soon launch a "blitz" on the cost of living and that Osborne had "identified water bills, rail fares and bank fees as areas where the government can act to help with household bills." After previously dismissing Miliband's proposed energy price freeze as "a gimmick", Cameron notably acknowledged on ITV's The Agenda that the Labour leader had "struck a chord" with the public. 

With real incomes not expected to rise until 2015 and not expected to return to their pre-crash levels until 2023, Tory MPs are rightly warning their leadership not to dismiss the living standards crisis as a temporary ailment that will pass now growth has returned. A recent ComRes survey found that voters think the Tories are more likely to maintain economic growth (42-33%) and to keep public spending under control (47-28%), but also that they believe their own family would be better off under Labour (41-31%). If one party takes a decisive advantage before 2015, it is likely to be that which wins the trust of the public on both issues.

The Tory fightback has begun today with the announcement that rail fare increases will be capped at 6%, with companies barred from raising individual fares by more than 2% above RPI inflation, rather than the current limit of 5% (provided that the average rise is 1% above inflation). Ministers say that the move could save commuters around £20 a month but with fares still set to rise above inflation for the eleventh year in a row (while average earnings fall for the sixth year in a row), it's rather small beer. Labour has been able to hit back by pointing out that the move doesn't go as far as its pledge to limit all fare increases to 1% above inflation and former transport secretary Andrew Adonis has noted that the cap is "less tight" than the one he imposed in 2009-10. 

The Tories are promising "week by week" announcements in the run-up to the Autumn Statement but they'll need to do better than this to wrest the initiative back from Miliband.

David Cameron leaves Number 10 Downing Street on October 7, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.