Comment: More contentious gas on electoral front

Martin FlanaganMartin Flanagan
Martin Flanagan
It’s all rather “more populist than thou”. Coalition government Energy Secretary Ed Davey has written to regulator Ofgem and the Competition & Markets Authority attacking the dominance of British Gas and Scottish Gas.

Davey has crossed the Rubicon by raising the possibility of energy giants being broken up if they have “monopoly power to the detriment of the consumer”.

Centrica, the energy group that owns both subsidiaries, isn’t pleased. But it is predictable that the company would get caught in the political crossfire in the long-running battle for voters’ minds and prejudices ahead of the 2015 general election.

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To use poker parlance, this is the government’s equivalent of “I’ll see you and raise you” to Ed Miliband’s pledge to freeze energy prices for 20 months if Labour wins that election.

The subtext is that Labour is fiddling at the margins on price freeze pledges, while Davey thinks a more radical shake-up of the energy industry might be of more benefit – price freezes are for wimps.

Utility bosses have performed the remarkable feat of periodically knocking bankers off the naughty step as far as the public and politicians are concerned.

Bankers trouser bonuses while small businesses go to the wall and customers cannot get their money out of automatic cash dispensers.

Many utility bosses (although not Centrica boss Sam Laidlaw, it must be said) do the same while household energy bills rise and some people have to choose between heating their home and putting bread on the table.

Into this space has moved Davey, suggesting that Ofgem might look at whether the issue of gas market share and that sector’s profit margins should be investigated.

One also wonders whether the call is influenced by rising government concern that Miliband has struck a chord with the person on the Edinburgh omnibus with his increasingly naked challenge to big business.

Whether it is the Labour leader’s scathing comparison of predatory versus producer capitalism, or his proposed crackdown on fuel bills and bank market shares, it is clear that, while not the Red Ed of Daily Mail fantasy, Miliband’s policies are clearly miles left of Tony Blair’s faux Labour administration.

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Davey’s intervention again shows its man-of-the-people game-on. David Cameron is on Twitter at the drop of a banality. Chancellor George Osborne affects Estuary English in a speech. Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls talks about his life-long stutter.

It’s even money on which party goes for a windfall tax on utilities first. After all, it worked in 1997...