Friday, 28 March 2014

Does Miliband know what he's fixing..

Good morning. Labour is making big efforts to make sure it gets credit for the competition inquiry into the Big Six energy companies. Ed Miliband wants everyone to know that it was his pledge of a price freeze last autumn that triggered a political panic in Number 10 that led, eventually, to yesterday's announcement from Ofgem. He will propose additional price controls today, extending his market-rigging idea to business. The Guardian has the details and leads with them ('Miliband calls for new curbs on energy bills'). Labour will try to call a Commons vote next week on an immediate price freeze to keep the pressure up. Mr Miliband is due to speak to the Federation of Small Business today. His argument is that the inquiry ordered by Ofgem dovetails with the 20-month price freeze he's promised for after the election.
Labour will also try to make the most of Sam Laidlaw's reaction to Ofgem yesterday when he said the inquiry would threaten investment and could lead to power blackouts. The Daily Mirror gives a flavour of what's to come, with a pic of Mr Laidlaw's face on a light bulb with the headline "The blackout blackmailer" and "Yesterday this £2m a year energy fat cat had the nerve to claim a probe into fixing their sky-high prices may lead to power cuts… How dare he and his arrogant pals treat us with such contempt". The Mail has something similar: "British Gas 'blackmail'" Mr Laidlaw can look after himself, but you can see that for politicians of any stripe, but particularly Labour, the plutocrats who are paid loads to keep the lights on are an easy target. It helps that the workings of the energy industry are as complex as the NHS: few in the Westminster village - politicians and journalists - understand them enough to form a reliable view.
If No10 thinks Ofgem has holed the Labour case, they need to get people out there saying so. If the point is that the market is deemed to be sufficiently flawed to require a competition review, then it must follow that Labour's prescription is premature and the consumer - and the markets - would be better served by all parties agreeing to put off a debate until the outcome of the review is known. The Miliband price freeze now looks like a pre-emption of the CMA's eventual conclusions. He may say they fit together, but can he really propose a fix before he knows what he's fixing? Then there's the wider political challenge. Labour in power did nothing to keep the country in power. Mr Laidlaw may be a fat cat, but he's a correct fat cat: the British political market is shaped by political uncertainty and tinkering. If costs are high and investment prospects bleak, it's because politicians have allowed them to be. It is perfectly reasonable to say the energy market is badly constructed and doesn't work, but it does not follow that putting supply at risk by making investment even riskier is the right response.
There's an important op-ed from George Osborne and Wolfgang Schäuble in the FT. The crucial line is in the title: "two-speed Europe". Tucked in the piece is the commitment that EU reform must "guarantee fairness for those EU countries inside the single market but outside the single currency." The Government will be thrilled: the German foreign minister has accepted the British argument for treaty protection for those outside the euro zone; it will provide Mr Osborne and Dave with hope that the EU may yet be remodelled to suit British national interests. The article also advocates the EU becoming more "flexible and outward-looking", and highlights a transatlantic trade and investment deal as the next step: "This would be the world’s biggest ever trade deal, a huge economic prize." It all amounts to perhaps the most significant sign of Anglo-German cooperation yet. But, while Britain has a powerful friend, it needs to cultivate many more to get the reformed EU it desires.  

Of course, Nigel Farage reckons any renegotiation is all a complete waste of time. The Ukip leader pops up with another attack on the EU, laying into the "vanity" of its foreign policy and saying that Brussels was poking the "Russian bear with a big stick". We can expect to hear plenty more along those lines during the second Clegg-Farage debate next week. Fraser Nelson challenges those who (including me) who reckon that the debates will leave Dave as a loser on the sidelines. In his column, he says that the "centre-ground" on Europe has now been vacated: "while he’s saying little about what he wants from Europe, he now seems to be the only leader in Westminster offering anything resembling grown-up discussion." It all raises the question: will there be general election debates next year? Andrew Grice's story in the Indysuggests that the answer is no. The Conservatives are accused of ruling out negotiations until after the conference season, and Labour and Lib Dem sources say that Dave is "running scared". We certainly haven't heard the last of this one.
Jeremy Hunt is at war with Sir Bruce Keogh, the NHS's medical director. In a clash last November, Sir Bruce implored Mr Hunt not to announce his plans to restructure A & E services, and reportedly told the Health Secretary to "bugger off"'; senior NHS figures also tell the Guardian that Mr Hunt is a "control freak". Will all the ill-feeling stop Mr Hunt pressing ahead with his reforms? I somehow doubt it. 
Given all the uproar surrounding them, it's surprising that the U-turn over legal aid cuts hasn't got more coverage in this morning's papers. As the Guardian details, the Ministry of Justice has agreed to defer most of the proposed savings until next summer, when they will be reviewed. But the fight may only have been postponed until after the general election: the MoJ still plans to reduce its legal aid budget by £215 million by 2018-19.  
It was Tony Benn's sendoff yesterday, as St Margaret's Church was packed to its 750-strong capacity with political friends and foes alike. Naturally, The Red Flag was among the songs that played. Owen Jones likens the funeral to an impromptu demonstration: trade union, Labour party and peace banners fluttered in the breeze. It's well worth reading Michael Deacon's lovely account of the day: "silence felt inappropriate to the memory of this unstoppably voluble man."
Neil Kinnock and Sadiq Khan have apologised to Eric Pickles after the shadow justice minister tweeted a letter from the ex Labour leader warning that Mr Pickles's participation in the London marathon could lead to "a helpful by-election". Tories have already laid into Mr Khan, whose dreams of being London Mayor after Boris will not have been helped. 
The Morning Briefing is edited by Tim WigmoreFollow Tim on Twitter  
Latest YouGov poll: Con 35%, Lab 36%, Ukip 11%; Lib Dems 10%
Pass the remote!!
@stellacreasy: ARGH ARGH ARGH its coldplay on @bbctw *makes mad lunge for remote control as ears begin to lacerate*
In the Telegraph
Fraser Nelson - Only one person is laughing at the Farage-Clegg EU pantomime 
Jeremy Warner - Osborne must not run scared of housing 
Isabel Hardman - Why foxhunting has become an unspeakable topic
Telegraph View - Bringing power to the people
Best of the rest
George Osborne and Wolfgang Schäuble - Protect Britain in a two-speed Europe
Philip Collins - Children don’t earn their inheritance. Tax it 
Ken Loach - Labour is part of the problem, not the solution
Philip Stephens - The best of times is making way for the worst 
0800 EDINBURGH: Ex-Scottish Secretary addresses accountants. Michael Moore MP, former Secretary of State for Scotland, addresses an Institute of Chartered Accountants Scotland (ICAS) business breakfast. The Royal Scots Club , 29-31 Abercromby Place.

0900 MANCHESTER: Federation of Small Businesses conference, with Ed Miliband and skills minister Matt Hancock. 0900 Conference opens 0945 Speech by FSB national chairman John Allan 1105 "In conversation" event with Ed Miliband 1415 Speech by Matt Hancock Manchester Central conference centre, Windmill St.

1000 ABERDEEN: Scottish Liberal Democrat spring conference. Speakers in the afternoon include Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander. Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre, Exhibition Avenue.