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.