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Thursday 18th October 2012 | 12:27
In just 21 words at PMQs, David Cameron caused more chaos and confusion than any minister since..well...George Osborne's Budget.
As the Coalition moves seamlessly from #omnishambles to #energyshambles, it looks like the PM can't blame anyone else for this one.
Here is what he said in the Commons:
“I can announce that we will be legislating so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers”
It may be worth fisking* a few of those words in turn.
"I can announce..."
As any hack will tell you, that phrase - especially when from the PM - signals a new policy. It was delivered with such aplomb and conviction we all assumed he actually knew what he was talking about. Moreover, it clearly implies this is a new policy beyond what Nick Clegg 'announced' in April. In other words, it's NOT just about getting energy companies to write to consumers telling them their lowest tariffs available.
"...we will be legislating..."
Even more certainty, the mention of legislation suggests this is the real deal, a bigger event than a mere entreaty to the industry or consumers. Note the word 'will' - as cast iron as it gets. It sounds very much like he's talking about the expected Energy Bill.
"..so that energy companies have to give..."
Note the verbs here. Cameron says 'have to', which clearly implies compulsion. Again, a big deal, as opposed to a voluntary scheme. But he also says 'give'. Which implies energy firms will be forced to transfer consumers onto the cheapest tariffs. That's much stronger than merely 'offering' the cheapest deals.
"...the lowest tariff.."
That's not a 'lower' tariff, but the 'lowest'. ie the lowest possible. It is unclear however whether this means the 'lowest' in the market or the 'lowest' in their own portfolio of tariffs. If it's the former, the market will effectively be dead.
"..to their customers.."
He didn't say 'most' customers, he said 'customers', suggesting that everyone would be affected.
Now, less than 24 hours later, we have John Hayes in the Commons adding to the confusion. Hayes refused to repeat the PM's phraseology. He variously used the word 'lower' and 'lowest'.
Worse still, No.10 added more mud to the muddy waters when the PM's spokeswoman told us at Lobby today:
"We are going to look at the various options, set those out in the bill and put the obligation on the energy companies to offer the lowest tariffs to more people"
See what she did there? The verb is no longer to 'give' the lowest tariff, but to 'offer' the lowest tariff.. Sounds a bit Clegg-like. But if that's so, why did the PM say 'I can announce..'?
The PM's spokeswoman also stressed there would be 'various' options, implying this is not at all pinned down (which would explain the DECC being caught unawares).
The No.10 machine is often blamed for such blunders, but perhaps the PM simply misspoke when he tried to hijack the Clegg announcement and add a bit of Prime Ministerial flourish to it?
Shambles? Sure looks like it. And this time it involves a multi-billion pound industry that wants certainty more than anything else.
*FOOTNOTE: Fisking is, for the uninitiated, named after Bob Fisk.
UPDATE: I love the new Twitter hashtag for #energyshambles....#combishambles (after combi boilers)
Ed Davey has studiously avoided repeating the Cameron line too today, preferring to focus on 'collective switching' of energy companies. And repeating Clegg's plan to get firms to just 'offer' the lowest tariffs.
Check out this latest video.
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