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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear