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Behind Week’s Cameron Commons Energy Blunder Is A Conservative Retreat From Green Politics

Last Updated: Friday, October 19th, 2012

On Wednesday during Prime Minister’s Questions, David Cameron said that “we will be legislating so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers”.  A day later, John Hayes, an Energy Minister, was forced to come to the Commons, and tell it that the Government “will be bringing forward legislation to help energy consumers to get the best deal” – not quite the same thing.  Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s spokesman was insisting that the Government will “put the obligation on the energy companies to offer [my italic] the lowest tariffs to more people”.

At first glance, another “process” story about a Ministerial “omnishambles”.  But on deeper inspection, a more profound political tale about a gradual and emerging Team Cameron U-turn on climate change policy – made in the teeth of opposition from his Coalition partners, environmental lobby groups and members of his own party.

To understand what is taking place, one has to travel back in time to 2005 and the aftermath of Cameron’s victory in the Conservative leadership election.  If a single photograph sums up the uber-modernising spirit of those early days, it is the one of Cameron hugging a husky during a visit to Norway: he had gone there to investigate the claimed effects of man-made global warming.  The environment was one of the key issues chosen by Team Cameron – international aid and civil liberties were two others – to differentiate his leadership from that of his predecessors.

Greg Barker, an early Cameron backer, travelled with the Tory leader.  The new leadership was committed to combating climate change and cutting carbon emissions. Barker is now a Minister of State at the Climate Change Department.  But the world of 2012 is startlingly different from that of 2005.  Since then:

* The theory that human activity is the main driver of global warming has come under critical scrutiny.  Nigel Lawson published his “Appeal to Reason” in 2008, which argued for more adaptation to climate change and less mitigation.  “Climate-gate” took place at the University of East Anglia in 2009: climate change critics claimed that e-mails showed global warming to be a scientific conspiracy.

* The Lehman Brothers crash has happened, and recession and Euro-crisis have followed.  Global warming concern is now less of a voter priority.  In simple terms, it is usually a boom phenomenon, as the Green triumph in Britain’s 1989 Euro-elections, also conducted during a period of growth, helps to indicate.  During recession, voters worry less about the planet’s long-term future and more about their own short-term one.

* Energy bills have shot up, impacting severely on many older and poorer people.  It is easy to believe that voters are most concerned about the traditional symbols of “bust”: low growth and unemployment.  The opposite is true.  Voters are more troubled by one of traditional manifestations of “boom” – rising prices, higher electricity and gas bills, more expensive petrol.  These have coincided with the present recession: welcome to the return of “stagflation”.

* Ed Miliband has made a political play of attacking “predators” while defending “producers”.  These “predators” include rail companies who in his view force up the price of tickets, banks who pay employees unjustified bonuses, and energy companies who send the cost of gas and electricity soaring.  In short, he is assailing what has been described as “crony capitalism” while seeking to present Cameron as a defender of vested interests.

* All this has had a profound effect on the Tory Party.  Party activists were never signed up to battling climate change in the way that Cameron was.  A pre-general election ConservativeHome survey of Parliamentary candidates found that fighting global warming was at the bottom of their list of priorities.  Tory MPs are even more suspicious of rapid decarbonisation than they were then.  For example, there has been a big backbench revolt against onshore wind farms and their subsidies.

There has consequently been an about-turn on environmental policy at the very top.  Cameron has not made a major speech about the Environment since becoming Prime Minister.  But the man leading the U-turn is – as so often when strategic direction is concerned – George Osborne.  The Chancellor has taken fully on board the economic and political changes I have tried to describe.  He is focused on holding and winning the marginal midlands and northern seats that the Conservatives must gain in 2015 to win a majority.  Hence his determination to wean voters in those areas off tax credits and public sector jobs.

Elsewhere, I have described the Chancellor as “Octopus Osborne” – the man whose tentacles reach into every part of government.  Believing the cost of living to be a crucial battleground issue, he has recruited the able Sajid Javid to the Treasury, and helped to send John Hayes, an opponent of the onshore wind drive, to the climate change department.

It will be worth watching for the following flashpoints when the Energy Bill, still being thrashed out by the Quad – Cameron and Osborne, plus Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander from the Liberal Democrats – reaches the Commons.  Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat Climate Change Secretary, has attended some Quad meetings about the bill.

* Energy bill prices.  Cameron said that legislation would force energy companies to put all customers on to their lowest tariff. He seems to have meant to say that they would be forced to tell their customers of the lowest tariff available (and to help them to switch).  But if he really meant the former, tariffs could actually go up, as the “Big Six” energy companies set a rate higher than the present lowest one.

* Decarbonisation.  Davey is reported “to be pushing for a legally binding commitment to the total amount of carbon that can be emitted by power stations by 2030, in order to “bind in” the Government to renewable energy”.  Osborne will be resistant to loading more costs on businesses at a time when that elusive recovery may at last be beginning to happen.  His leaked labelling of the green lobby as an “Environmental Taliban” was no accident.

* Onshore wind.  Osborne has already clashed with Davey over subsidies.  Davey was willing to accept a 10 per cent cut.  Osborne pushed for a bigger one.  100 Conservative backbenchers signed a round robin letter calling for lower subsidies, and the Chancellor is sensitive to their views.  Hayes has been sent to the Department with a specific brief from Cameron to get on top of the issue.

* Nuclear power.  Davey wants the Treasury should guarantee loans that energy companies will need to invest in new renewable and nuclear power stations.  Certainly, his own Department’s climate change calculator shows that only a big expansion of nuclear can meet Britain’s energy needs.  Osborne, by contrast, wants a cap on subsidies – a “levy control framework”.

* Airport policy.  Osborne clearly regrets the decision made in Opposition to rule out a third Heathrow runway.  Boris Johnson remains an outspoken opponent, as do the Liberal Democrats.  Justine Greening, whose Putney constituency drove her opposition to a third runway, has been moved from the Transport Department and there will now be a review watched over by the new Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin.

By Paul Goodman

 

HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME

Tim Montgomerie: Three big things I’ve got wrong since I’ve starting blogging and commenting:
“It is a real honour to be a columnist for The Times and it was an extra honour yesterday to be chosen as Political Columnist of the Year by Editorial Intelligence…This blogpost isn’t meant to be a list of things I and ConHome have got right, however….So here goes with some confessions. I’ve got a few big calls wrong and I thought I’d share them with you in the interests of transparency and, I hope, an honest editor-to-reader relationship. I’ll start by admitting I was wrong to oppose David Cameron and George Osborne’s commitment to protect the NHS budget from inflation…My second error was on the 50p top rate of income tax. Thirdly my biggest and most profound regret. I spent most of my formative years in an evangelical tradition and believed that homosexuality was wrong. I deeply regret that now.” Read more: http://is.gd/4KZnPh

Paul Goodman: How David Cameron could make a success of Twitter:  “Now Mr Cameron’s decided to go on Twitter, he should roll up his sleeves and make a proper fist of it.  He and his team are smart enough to know how to do so, as the tweets that he’s issued so far indicate.  There is a dry joke about his number of followers (128,000 and counting), a birthday celebration photograph, a tweet pushing the main point of his excellent conference speech. But there have been only 13 tweets to date.  There was nothing for five days between October 10 and 15, and there has been nothing since. (The Prime Minister started tweeting on October 6.)  He is not using Twitter consistently to project a sense of himself  – to convey what Alastair Campbell, in his shrewd piece behind the Times paywall yesterday, called “a consistent, authentic message that speaks to core values and policies over time“. Read more: http://is.gd/FMOGqu

Jill Kirby: Childcare policy should start with children:  “Childcare Minister Liz Truss is right to point out that the last Labour government spent far too much money on childcare subsidies. As she explains, the distribution of these subsidies, combined with a huge increase in bureaucracy and regulation, skewed the childcare market and reduced parental choice. But the solutions Miss Truss proposes, drawing on a new report by the left-leaning think-tank IPPR, appear to be based on a narrow set of assumptions propagated during the Labour years, from which the coalition badly needs to break free…A free market in childcare and a level playing field between parental and commercial care. Surely this would be a perfect liberal-conservative solution? But the coalition must first break the chains of outdated Labour beliefs, so that it can develop a fresh, modern and compassionate childcare policy.” Read more: http://is.gd/FMsdyY

Peter Hoskin: Let’s look at the Thatcher Years in full, not just in parts:  “People — many of them Conservatives — have reached back to her years of government, grabbed on to a single part of them, and emerged with a very firm idea about what they were like. Spending cuts! The Falklands! Facing down the unions! Standing up for business! No turning! But while all of these ideas are partly in the right, they are also in the wrong. The Thatcher governments must be looked at in the whole for the right lessons to be drawn from them…The truth about Margaret Thatcher has more sides to it than many people, her admirers as well as her opponents, care to admit. This doesn’t detract from her political legacy; quite the opposite. It reveals it for what it is: a whole, and not just a jumble of parts.” Read more: http://is.gd/yidWwb

Tim Montgomerie on MajorityConservatism: Making the case for a majority rather than another coalition:  “Our best argument for a majority government may not just lie in our specific promises to fix the economy, rebalance our relationship with Europe or finish Michael Gove’s schools reform programme. They might also focus on the inherent weakness of coalition government at a time when the country needs far-reaching and bold reforms. The Liberal Democrats’ constant attacks on their Coalition partners have actually undermined their long-term goal of reducing the British public’s suspicion of indecisive election outcomes. The broken promises and squabbling that voters have witnessed since the formation of the Cameron-Clegg alliance mean that under a quarter of voters now see coalition government as their ideal model. Voters now see one party government as preferable because it’s easier to hold politicians accountable for their manifesto promises and there’s more clarity of mission.” Read more: http://is.gd/PpmAM8

Nadine Dorries MP: Improved sex education in schools must be one of the responses to Jimmy Savile scandals:  Speaking as someone who grew up throughout the sixties and seventies, sexual abuse was not uncommon. The reason why it was so prevalent was that it was a silent, taboo subject. Sex was not discussed in the way it is today. It wasn’t shown in films, on television or depicted in magazines. It was never mentioned in the home and there were no sex education lessons in school. Underage pregnancy was un-common, abortion was rare and sexually transmitted diseases unusual. It was a different age which provided the perfect environment for predatory males, and there were a lot of them.  The sixties decade of free love and sexual emancipation for women, courtesy of the invention of the birth control pill, appears to have lured these despicable men into a decade of new boldness. Read more: http://is.gd/GI57YY

The new Conservative Jury asks: How should Conservatives attack Labour?  Paul ABBOTT: “Patrick O’Flynn said it best last week. I paraphrase: “You can’t trust Labour with your money… You can’t trust Labour on immigration.” This should be expressed as a relentless focus on the cost of living.”  MAX WIND-COWIE: “We should be hugging the socially conservative instincts of the ‘Blue-few’ close and looking to steal their clothes where appropriate while constantly reminding voters that the bulk of Ed’s party would never let him deliver on ‘One Nation’ Labour in Government.” SAMUEL KASAMU: “To coin the phrase ‘it’s the economy stupid’. If there is one issue that every person in the country is conscious of, it’s the current financial challenges caused by Labour’s inability to manage the public purse.” ANGIE BRAY MP: We should start attacking Labour off the back of Ed Miliband’s new adoption of the one-nation slogan and use it to point out that his speech – far from encapsulating one-nationism – was actually about dividing the Country into us and them.” Read more: http://is.gd/XWVEK7

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