Populism? By Gove, I think they've got it

Instead of defending the energy firms, he put himself on the side of the bill-payer

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Sometimes I don't understand politics at all. Neither did Gordon Brown. Re-reading Anthony Seldon and Guy Lodge's book of his time at No 10, I came across their account of how he started off devoting 12 hours a week on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to prepare for Prime Minister's Questions. This tailed off by his final year, and his team "found that the less time Brown spent, and the less he agonised about it, the better he became".

But he never understood it. Seldon and Lodge report that Brown complained about David Cameron: "He treats PMQs like a game." Brown's team would say back to him: "But it is a game."

That is how opposition works. When Ed Miliband announced his ridiculous back-of-an-envelope-in-a-focus-group energy price freeze at Labour conference last week, Cameron's team in Downing Street said, "That's a ridiculous back-of-an-envelope-in-a-focus-group policy."

And so it is. But that is hardly the point. It is no use Cameron's people complaining that Miliband's policy is "just mad" because it will "bankrupt the energy companies who we will need to build all this infrastructure". It is no use trying to explain that profit margins in gas and electricity are not high – partly because margins did rise at the end of last year and start of this one, from being a bit lower than those typical of supermarket companies to being a bit higher, according to Ofgem, the regulator. It is no use trying to explain that when world energy prices go up, British retail prices go up, and when world prices go down, British retail prices go down, too.

That is not what people believe. They "know" that when world prices fall, the prices they are charged stay the same. They "know" that the energy companies are ripping them off, and that the "big six" are a cartel. Just as people "know" that the gap between rich and poor is getting wider when the opposite is happening (slightly), and that Michael Gove is an idiot when he is not only right about most things but one of the most decent people in politics.

In fact, it was Gove who understood the politics of Miliband's opportunism. Instead of trying to explain how markets work, how investors are attracted to Britain and how jobs are created, he said on BBC Question Time that Ed Miliband was right. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. But he was right to say that Miliband was right, even though Miliband was wrong. Miliband was right, Gove continued, to say that energy bills are expensive and that the Government should do all it could to try to keep them down – he just wasn't quite sure that a price freeze had been "thought through".

Instead of defending fat-cat energy companies, and repeating their silly propaganda about the "lights going out", as all Conservatives had done until then, Gove was on the side of the bill-payer exclaiming, "£1,400 a year?"

Sometimes, when I see politics being done well, I understand it after all. So did the Downing Street operation, which immediately refined the line for ministers to take. Suddenly, they started talking about the need to "cure the disease" of high energy prices, rather than "treating the symptoms".

Feeling the pain of median-income families will be one of the themes of this week's Conservative conference, linking the "on the right track" message to the promise of prosperity to come. That is why Matthew Hancock, the business minister who is close to George Osborne, the Chancellor, quickly adjusted his cheerful manner when invited to say that the economy was looking up in his interview in today's newspaper. "We are very clear that life remains tough for lots and lots of families," he said, looking almost mournful. He even used Labour language about a "living standards crisis".

By Gove, I think he's got it.

It is no use ministers saying the economy is growing, until people "know" that it is. Just as it is no use ministers saying Miliband's price controls are a throwback to the 1970s. They are, but governments imposed price controls and incomes policies in the 1970s because voters wanted them to. Telling voters what they want to hear is popular. Tony Blair did it in 1997 (although his windfall tax on the utilities was better economics than a price freeze). Indeed Cameron himself did it, when he promised by mistake to force energy companies to put all customers on the lowest tariff. The Downing Street unit tasked with "making whatever the Prime Minister says in the Commons true", as one official put it, has still not yet worked out the details of that one.

So Cameron can hardly accuse Miliband of proposing a legislative fix for a complex economic problem, and instinctively understands that he needs to be seen as being on the side of the consumer. Ministers first responded to Labour's price freeze by complaining, in effect, that Miliband was treating the country's future like a game. Gove got it right: it may not be a game, but you have to play it as if it is. If the Prime Minister can get the tone right this week, he will have neutralised Miliband's opportunism.

Vote for @JohnRentoul as Twitter Personality of the Year at commentawards.com

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