Too many households struggle to pay their bills, too many people suffer each winter due to being unable to heat their homes and too many companies have shifted manufacturing abroad to escape unaffordable energy prices in Britain.
Miliband’s speech may not have shifted the polls noticeably, but it is clear that the issue is not going away. Each party must now choose how to address it.
We know where Labour stand – top-down price control of the type which has harmed economies and deterred investment in whichever country or sector it has been tried in recent decades.
As of today, we have a slightly better idea of where the Conservatives are headed – towards a long overdue “roll back” of green taxes and regulations of the type that this site has long proposed. We don’t know the details, or the timing, as yet, but the Prime MInister has been supported this afternoon by a sufficiently wide range of voices that it seems this is the set direction of travel.
The Liberal Democrats are now the only party without any stated idea of how to bring down energy bills.
We know, thanks to some rather tetchy briefing from “Lib Dem sources”, that they aren’t happy with the idea of cutting green taxes:
“…we will not allow a panicky U-turn during PMQs to dictate government policy. The way to provide stable fuel bills now and in the future is not to make policy up on the hoof.”
The source added that Lib Dems in the coalition would not “allow the Tories to undermine our commitment to the environment, hurt the fuel poor, or destroy our renewable energy industry”.
(Amusingly, they have also complained that it isn’t very collegiate of the Prime Minister to only give them half an hour’s notice of the announcement at PMQs – I’m not aware of Nick Clegg running his decision to attack Free Schools past any of his Coalition partners beforehand.)
They may not be willing – or perhaps able – to think of their own alternative, but if they insist on publicly opposing tax cuts then Conservatives should reply in kind. As I wrote last week, there’s nothing to fear from having a public row in which Clegg lines his troops up to defend Ed Miliband’s decisions, made when he was Energy Secretary, to deliberately force up consumers’ bills. It may be a break from the Rose Garden approach to Coalition, but it isn’t 2010 any more, and the long election campaign has begun.
Clegg may even choose to block policy proposals in the Quad and in Cabinet – in which case we should make very clear that while Conservatives want to bring down people’s bills right now, the Lib Dems have forced everyone to carry on paying more until the election.
Such a position would be extremely uncomfortable as the amount voters could have saved ticks up and up the longer they stick to it. Even bringing green tax cuts to a vote in the Commons would also appeal to many Tory MPs, who have enjoyed the experience of watching Lib Dem and Labour MPs run and hide rather than vote against the popular idea of an EU referendum.
But that is a worst case scenario, in which the issue is essentially deferred to be an electoral issue until 2015. It’s notable that the BBC’s sources did leave the door open to some movement on the matter:
“Nick Clegg has always said that we should stress-test every policy to make sure that there isn’t a penny more on bills than necessary,” they said. “Of course, we will look at the specific details of what the Tories propose. That is coalition government.”
The Lib Dem leadership know they have to make a fuss about their greeny message to reassure activists and their diminished core vote, but looking at the caveats contained in that last quote it seems possible they know their position as the people preventing energy bills from being cut will not be tenable for long.