It isn’t surprising that David Cameron wants to talk about the economy: just this week we’ve seen GDP in Q3 up 0.8%, consumer confidence at a six-year high, and mortgage lending at its highest levels since 2008. That isn’t what’s dominating the debate in Westminster though, and it isn’t what’s filling column inches in the press. That accolade goes firmly and squarely to what can be done to tackle high energy bills. Following Ed Miliband’s speech the issue dominated last month’s conference season, and hasn’t really left the agenda since.
However, while it’s clear Labour’s promise to freeze prices for two years from 2015 is setting the agenda, it’s not yet reaping any positive political dividend for Miliband and his party. Labour’s poll lead is no greater than it was earlier this year, and polling clearly shows that the public is sceptical a Labour Government could actually implement such a dramatic policy, or that it would be able to reform the market in any meaningful way.
That isn’t to say it’s not having any effect though. While the focus on energy isn’t boosting Labour’s standing, it is forcing the Tories to tackle the issue when they’d far rather be talking about the economy. The Conservative’s problem is compounded by the fact that – away from announcing a major, radical policy like Ed Miliband’s – most of what the Government can do involves tinkering with a range of policies that the public have never heard of, with unclear knock-on effects on consumer bills they have no direct control over.
That point was very apparent during a Select Committee hearing with the ‘Big 6’ Energy firms. Away from colourful rhetoric about predators and vulnerable consumers, tangible policy suggestions were few and far between. Cameron’s challenge, therefore, is to kill off Ed Miliband’s unproven price freeze and get the debate back to the economy with limited room for manoeuvre – particularly given the Lib Dems’ longstanding support for green policies.
Government loses two court cases – but will only lose sleep over one
The Government was in court this week defending both its welfare reforms and the Health Secretary’s decision to close parts of Lewisham Hospital.
Yet despite headlines showing that the Government ‘lost’ today’s hearing on the legality of its popular workfare programme, the Tories will be happy that this victory is essentially academic. This is because the Supreme Court found that the Government had not drawn up its initial legislation properly – a situation it has already retroactively rectified. Importantly, the Court also found that the scheme does not constitute forced labour, a key criticism from political opponents – meaning that one of the key parts of the Government’s popular welfare reforms can continue.
In contrast, there will be real concerns over the prospect for reforming healthcare in south London following the Court of Appeal’s decision that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt does not have the power to close departments at Lewisham Hospital as a way of bailing out the troubled neighbouring South London Healthcare Trust. It also gives more ammunition to Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham, who – after surviving a Labour reshuffle in which many predicted he could be sacked – has looked to continue to ramp up pressure on Hunt, and has already labelled the decision a “humiliation”.
EU Referendum Question
The Electoral Commission’s suggestion that the EU Referendum question contained in Conservative MP James Wharton’s Private Member’s Bill should be changed could derail the fragile Bill, which is due to return to Parliament on the 8th November. The Bill passed its previous readings following abstentions from the Lib Dems and Labour, but any long debates on amendments could see time the Bill’s time elapse. This is something that Private Member’s Bills are particularly vulnerable to, unlike Government Bills.
The current question, which would be asked to the public in 2017, is “Do you think that the United Kingdom should be a member of the European Union?”, and the Commission has suggested the Bill should instead ask the more neutral “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” If the Bill were to be derailed, it would remove an important outlet for backbench Conservative discontent – potentially increasing tension with the party’s leadership.