Danny Alexander picks an important fight with Osborne

Scrap over climate change policy.

In tabling a motion for the Liberal Democrats autumn conference on low carbon policy, Danny Alexander MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has picked an important fight with his boss, the Chancellor George Osborne. Alexander’s feet must be kept to the fire on this if Britain is to have any chance of achieving its legal obligations to decarbonise the power sector.

Alexander’s motion roundly criticizes "the refusal of the Conservatives to acknowledge that investing in carbon reducing technologies has the potential to make an important contribution to long-term growth".

There is no one this accusation can be more squarely aimed at than Alexander’s boss in the Treasury, the Chancellor George Osborne.

Since his autumn 2011 conference speech, Osborne has been almost wholly negative on the low carbon agenda. "We are not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business", he said putting himself squarely at odds with business groups like the CBI and EEF who see the green economy as a key driver of growth. Indeed, the green economy grew by 2.3 per cent in real terms in 2010/11, and made up a third of what little growth Britain managed in 2011/12.

Most recently Osborne was heavily rebuked by the Energy and Climate Change Committee for undermining the development of the government’s flagship Energy Bill, which is intended to bring forward vast amounts of investment in low carbon energy sources. Osborne seems far more interested in making the UK a fossil fuel hub and frightening the wind industry than going low carbon.

The Chancellor is likely to be particularly angered by Alexander’s proposal for the Government to establish a 2030 decarbonisation target for the power sector, in the range of 50 to 100 grams of CO2 emissions per kilowatt hour of energy produced. 2030 is a crucial staging post towards the UK reducing its emissions by 80 per cent 2050, and, while the independent Committee on Climate Change and the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee have recommended that a target of 50g by 2030 for the power sector is adopted, it is something to which Osborne appears firmly opposed. The mismatch between Alexander’s proposed target range of 50g to 100g, instead of the stricter 50g recommended by the Committee on Climate Change, is something that requires an explanation.

It is our view, set out in our submission to the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, that adoption of a 2030 power sector target is the single most important step the Government can take to provide certainty to industry about the direction of travel for the energy industry. Providing this certainty, we believe, will ensure that energy bills are kept as low as possible and the UK reaps the maximum benefits from growth in low carbon sectors, while at the same time emissions are reduced.

Danny Alexander is right to challenge the Chancellor on climate change policy because going low carbon is the only credible economic policy. It is now time for others to come out in support of the 2030 target and ensure it is adopted by government in the Energy Bill. This includes the Labour party; prominent green-minded Conservative MPs like Zac Goldsmith, Oliver Letwin and William Hague who are witnessing the rapid deterioration of their party’s reputation on climate change; and industry pressure groups like the CBI that are supportive of ambitious emission reduction policies.

Reg Platt is a Research Fellow at IPPR. He tweets at @regplatt

George Osborne. Photograph: Getty Images

Reg Platt is a Research Fellow at IPPR. He tweets as @regplatt.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.