Poor Ed Davey. There are probably more congenial times to learn that a gigantic utility opposed to Ed Miliband’s plan to freeze gas and electricity bills has announced a 9.2 per cent price rise than slap bang in the middle of energy questions at the House of Commons.
For Caroline Flint, the shadow Energy Secretary, the British Gas announcement was the parliamentary equivalent of a Christmas present, gift wrapped in silver foil, tied with a pink bow and a cheery card saying “I think you’ll have some fun with this”. So for once there was real live drama! Having condemned the price freeze as a “con”, Mr Davey was obliged to listen to Ms Flint reporting that “during these questions” British Gas had made its unwelcome announcement. “Why will not the Secretary of State stand up for consumers, support Labour’s price freeze and make the energy companies tell us exactly how much money they are earning?”
To be fair, Mr Davey joined Ms Flint in criticising the “extremely disappointing” rise, pointing out that British Gas was the only company in the sector to miss energy efficiency targets, leaving “more homes cold and its customers paying over the odds”. The problem with this approach, however, was that compared with Labour’s planned freeze, flawed or not, his own solution sounded a bit lame. “I urge British Gas customers who are unhappy to change their supplier,” he offered.
This formulation comfortingly suggested that not all customers would be unhappy, and that some would rip open their latest bills and announce to their loved ones: “Oh, goody, a nice meaty price rise, which is handy for the shareholders, ensuring investment for future generations, and which the company has already explained is caused by factors that are ‘not all directly under [its] control’.”
But Mr Davey is also hampered in his dealings with Ms Flint by sartorial disadvantage. The Shadow Secretary is always so well turned out – today it was heels, black dress, and mauve colour co-ordinated cardigan and chunky necklace – that she once appeared in a glamorous magazine photoshoot, to the annoyance of Gordon Brown’s team at No 10. By contrast, Mr Davey’s collar issues, which had started to emerge at the Liberal Democrat conference, are now close to a full-blown crisis. His necktie makes an all-too-visible crease, with the collar’s floppy wings bending anarchically upwards like those of a schoolboy dragged through a hedge backwards.
Stiffen that collar, Secretary of State – and maybe energy prices will even stop going up.