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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.