The Tories are desperately playing catch-up with Labour

Having spent months denouncing Miliband's energy price freeze as a "con", the Tories, spooked by the opposition's poll lead, are now trying to match it.

When Ed Miliband announced his pledge to freeze energy prices if elected, the Tories insisted they wouldn't enter a bidding war with Labour over the cost of living. 'Don't play on Miliband's turf' was the message from George Osborne to Conservative MPs. As the Chancellor told the Daily Telegraph last month: "I do not feel under pressure to match gimmick for gimmick. If anything, we are winning this argument with the British public precisely because we have been consistent, we have continued to put a grown-up argument to a grown-up country." Rather than reinforcing Labour's frame, the Tories would seek to shift the debate back to their preferred terrain of the deficit and GDP.

That strategy now lies in ruins. After the government repeatedly branded Miliband's plan to freeze prices a "gimmick" and a "con", energy company sources have now told the BBC that it is pleading with them to do just that (a transparent attempt to head off the move). The proposed freeze would last for at least 18 months until the middle of 2015 (after the general election in other words). Far from denouncing Labour's offer, the Tories, spooked by the opposition's stubborn poll lead, are now trying to match it. 

I expect ministers will respond by pointing out that the move is contingent on there being no major increase in wholesale prices and on the transfer of some green levies from consumer bills to general taxation, but much of this detail will be lost. Having spent months telling voters that a price freeze is unworkable, the government is now sending the reverse message. It leaves Ed Miliband with a political open goal: "David Cameron is 'asking' the energy companies to freeze prices; I'll force them too." 

As shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint said last night: "David Cameron is making himself look weaker and weaker with every passing day. For months he has been saying Labour's energy price freeze is a con. Now he is begging the energy companies to do the very same thing. But the truth is that only by legislating for a freeze can we guarantee that it will happen. David Cameron won't do that because he's not prepared to stand up to the big energy companies. All this shows is why we need a Labour government implementing Labour policy to freeze prices until 2017 and reset the energy market so that it works for the long term." Job done. 

At the end of a week that began with George Osborne U-turning on payday loan charges (and appropriating Miliband's rhetoric on setting "the rules" of the market) and continued with the government doing so on plain cigarette packaging, it creates the impression of a party in a strategic tailspin. After seeking, with some success, to project an image of competence, "omnishambles" is back

The government's wild lurching is reminsicent of that of Gordon Brown following George Osborne's 2007 conference pledge to cut inheritance tax. Rather than dismissing the Chancellor's gambit (which ultimately did his party more harm than good), Brown forced Alistair Darling to try and match it in his pre-Budget report, with predictably disastrous consequences. Far from wrongfooting the Tories, it created the impression of a government that was at the mercy of the opposition, in office but not in power. The irony is that, as Raf wrote recently, Osborne himself has cited this affair as evidence of why his party should not enter a political auction with Miliband. But under the pressure of events, that insight has now been cast aside. 

The Tories' plan for victory in 2015 is supposedly to present themselves as a "grown-up" party with a "long-term" plan. But rarely have they looked more childlike or short-termist than this week. 

David Cameron speaks during an interactive session with students of the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta on 14 November 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.