Tom Richmond: Empty promises will backfire if it costs more to fill up tank

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IS it any wonder that the public are so distrusting of politicians when David Cameron and George Osborne cannot agree if fuel duty will be frozen for the remainder of this Parliament – or not?

In fairness, Osborne chose his words carefully when the Chancellor set out the policy to the Conservative conference: “We’ve cut fuel duty. Abolished Labour’s escalator. And I can tell you today that, provided we can find the savings to pay for it, I want to freeze fuel duty for the rest of this Parliament.”

To summarise, he said this petrol pump promise will only happen if it is affordable at the time of the forthcoming Autumn Statement.

This was a politician being prepared to put his aspiration into a wider financial context – the total cost of this policy is likely to be £750m.

Fast forward 24 hours and the Prime Minister was telling listeners of Radio Four’s Today programme that this was a definite commitment. When it was pointed out that the Chancellor had been slightly circumspect, Cameron replied: “We will find the money.” Infuriatingly, he then refused to answer the obvious follow-up question: “How?”

I do sympathise with the PM. The coalition want to make a virtue out of the fact that pump prices would be 20p a litre more expensive if it had implemented the duty increases proposed by the last government.

It obviously hopes that this wheeze will counter Ed Miliband’s proposed freeze on household energy bills that enabled the Labour leader to regain the political initiative after a sorry summer on the back foot.

Yet politics should not be a game where leaders build up expectations at party conferences – there is no such thing as a “free” policy because the money has to be found from somewhere. Likewise, the use of the word “freeze” – fuel duty and the council tax have only been pegged because of cuts elsewhere.

All voters want is clarity – and honesty – and Osborne provided this when he said a freeze on fuel duty requires the economy to continue improving, or further cuts in public spending.

Regular readers will know I’m not a fan of the Chancellor – I think his overall approach has been harmful to the North and he has been complacent about the cost of living crisis – but credit where credit is due.

As such, I hope other senior politicians follow his lead and now explain how every commitment will be financed. They have a duty to do so.

WELL done to Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin for confronting critics of HS2 at the Tory conference with this blunt assessment: “I am tired of the moaning from London commentators who are pleased enough about billions of essential investment in Crossrail but can’t understand why the rest of the country needs great transport too.”

But why did McLoughlin only mention HS2 – sorry, the new North-South railway line – towards the end of his speech? It would have been far more helpful if he had confronted his critics at the outset rather than allowing this important intervention to go largely unnoticed.

However, I suppose that would have required the Tories to employ speechwriters who could have improved upon the dreary platitudes written for McLoughlin and others.

That is the problem; the over-reliance on researchers with little life experience means the personalities of the politicians are suffocated by the same tired old clichés.

THE Transport Secretary could also have used his speech to explain why regions like Yorkshire are missing out to Scotland.

While longstanding tolls on the Humber Bridge continue to hold back the economy in East Yorkshire, charges on the Forth Bridge north of Edinburgh were scrapped some time ago.

Now, after a foray north of the border, I see work is already well advanced on a second Forth road crossing that will cost between £1.45bn and £1.6bn.

Consultations are also under way on plans to widen the A9 dual carriageway from Perth to Inverness, even though there was hardly a soul on this route as I headed towards the foothills of the Highlands. Contrast this with the A1M which is little more than an overcrowded dual carriageway in large chunks of South and North Yorkshire.

Talk about double standards.

Is it me – or are hardworking Yorkies being taken for a ride because of the need to appease the Scots?

IT was an eye-opener to stay at a country hotel on the banks of the River Tay in rural Perthshire and discover that most of the staff were Spanish and had a limited English/Scottish vocabulary.

I did establish that the Spanish economy is so desperate that minimum wage jobs in a foreign country are a better option for them than relying on Madrid’s political leaders to get their act together.

Frightening.

And then there was the Scottish bar manager who hopes Alex Salmond’s SNP wins next year’s Independence vote so the Scots can leave the EU and “give jobs back to the locals”.

Even more frightening.

For, if there were “local” people willing and able to work in the hospitality industry, wouldn’t they be given jobs ahead of Spaniards with little affinity for Britain?

GOOD to see Peter Davies, the former Mayor of Doncaster, on characteristically outspoken form at Perth races.

He was not happy that next year’s season-ending meeting will clash with golf’s Ryder Cup at nearby Gleneagles, and hotel prices have gone skywards.

Yet someone was foolhardy enough to ask whether he would be supporting America or Europe in this great sporting contest.

“Certainly not Europe,” he insisted.

At least that’s clear.

THERE has finally been a response of sorts from my local GP surgery in response to concerns about patients using a premium-rate 0844 number to make appointments.

It does also have a local Leeds number that has been advertised on its website and on notice boards – concessions that are of no use to those who try to be infrequent users of the NHS.

“This offers exactly the same access to the phone system except that as a single line it can be engaged,” says the practice manager.

Sorry. Not good enough. Why can’t GPs and their managers realise that they’re paid by taxpayers to serve the public – rather than be such a hindrance?

And why should large practices be offered financial incentives by David Cameron to open from 8am to 8pm on every day of the week? They should be doing so as a matter of routine.

NOTE to mobile phone firm EE who have been pestering Richmond Towers this week. If your latest offer is so good, why do your sales staff refuse to put the details in writing?

FINALLY I suppose those complaining that David Cameron does not know the price of a loaf of bread are those who would have a go at the PM if he insisted on doing the family shop each week, necessitating a very costly security operation? Can’t these critics use their loaf?