Little has recently annoyed me more than Chris Huhne's response to the news that Scottish Power was imposing swingeing price rises. Asked where customers were left, faced with a 10 per cent increase for electricity and a massive 19 per cent increase for gas, the Energy Secretary said airily that they didn't have to take the increases lying down. "If any energy company hits you with a price increase, you can hit them back where it hurts – by shopping around and voting with your feet."
Oh yes? Let's look at this a bit more closely. The same reports that gave details of Scottish Power's move forecast that it was only a matter of time, and not a lot of it, before the other five major energy companies would follow suit. So let's say you are a Scottish Power customer and your reflex, on hearing the worst, was immediately to search the internet for a lower price. And let's also say – miracle of miracles – that you actually managed to switch your supplier overnight. Lo and behold, within a matter of days, your new company whacks you with their increase. Are you better off or not?
The "big six" supply almost all Britain's domestic energy. They are not charities. One moves, they all move. How often do you find significantly different prices at the petrol pumps these days? Thought not. That's what happens with the supposedly competing energy companies. Scottish Power blames the increases on much higher wholesale prices as a result of the weak dollar, unrest in the Middle East and growing demand from countries like India and China. It would be amazing if these pressures did not apply across the board.
The energy regulator Ofgem recently expressed concern about competition in the UK consumer energy market, promising that it would force companies to prune their 350 or so different tariffs to make it easier for rates to be compared. Do you want to bet? Even with 50 slightly different tariffs, you would have your work cut out as a comparison shopper. And how much time do you want to spend on this exercise anyway? There comes a point, if you value your time at all, when the hour(s) you spend "shopping around" and "switching" – especially if, as can happen, the "switching" process goes wrong – cancels out any reduction you might achieve. Given that the tariffs are so opaque, and will doubtless remain so – consider the pricing model of mobile phones – the prospect of any real saving is minimal.
And this, rather than ignorance or apathy, may be the reason why only 20 per cent of all energy consumers switch at all. Personally, I'm surprised it is that many, and suspect the figure may be distorted by serial switchers. What I would like to see are figures comparing what the "switched" customers paid a year ago and pay now, with equivalent figures for the "non-switchers". Chris Huhne could make a start by showing us how it works for him. If the difference is more than £100 a year, then he might just persuade me that the time, commitment and risk required to make this brand of competition work has a chance of at least paying for itself. And if not, well, it's not a market we are looking at so much as a cartel.
A not-so-Grey Lady hastens a new world order
Epic news: The New York Times – the city's so-called Grey Lady – has appointed the first woman editor in its 160-year history. It's not so long ago – 1970 – that women were barred from membership of Washington's venerable (and self-regarding) National Press Club. Even in the late 1990s, when I worked in Washington, the newsrooms at the major US papers had a distinctly male complexion. Jill Abramson – I'll spare her blushes by not mentioning her age – worked her way up from financial and political reporting at The Wall Street Journal, to be poached by The New York Times to head its Washington bureau. Her reporting won her a reputation for utter dependability and honesty – qualities that the scandal-stricken New York Times of the past 20 years could well do with.
What change, if any, there will be, once a woman starts directing editorial operations at the NYT, will become apparent in due course. The immediate significance of her appointment is that what was surely one of the highest dams of male dominance in the US has been breached. If we are now contemplating a woman head of the IMF (Christine Lagarde is the runaway favourite), and if, as is rumoured and rather pallidly denied, Hillary Clinton fancies swapping her chair at the US State Department for the presidency of the World Bank, the global hierarchy starts to look rather different.
Not that this means any battles have been definitively won. This could be the point at which the men up sticks and decide to play elsewhere. If US global economic domination is waning and power is shifting from the old media to the new, the women could find themselves less pioneering world-changers than managers of decline, while the men rule the world from new perches. I hope such cynicism is wrong.
Drought? What drought?
You knew, didn't you, and so did I, that the moment the Government performed its ritual early-summer rain dance – the formal announcement of a state of drought – the heavens would open. As they did, barely 24 hours later, when pretty much all the country was doused. Fans at the Isle of Wight rock festival found themselves slithering in Glastonbury-style mud; and Andy Murray had to wait an extra day for his victory at Queen's Club.
Which prompts two thoughts. If official statements so reliably produce the very opposite effect, might this be the reason for the recent spate of U-turns? And, second, given that farmers had been worried about imminent drought for months, whatever took the minister so long?