Will Cameron stand by the Green Deal?

The flagship environmental policy is in trouble. If it fails, the PM will want Lib Dems to get the b

The government's elaborate confusion over tax breaks on charitable donations has distracted attention from another intriguing policy row that erupted over the weekend. On Sunday, it emerged that three Tory ministers - Eric Pickles, Chris Grayling and Grant Shapps - are lobbying to have one of the coalition's flagship environmental policies scrapped. The "Green Deal" is a substantial project to insulate Britain's drafty housing stock by creating a consumer market for eco-friendly home improvements. In theory, householders benefit from lower bills and the world benefits from fewer carbon emissions.

Hostile Conservatives worry that the plans will effectively force people undertaking everyday home improvements to pay more in the name of eco-friendliness. They have dubbed the whole thing a stealth "conservatory tax." This is a pretty popular insurgency on the right of the Tory party, where environmentalism is generally suspected of being a false idol. Chris Huhne, the former Energy Secretary who put in most of the work on the Green Deal, has lashed out at Tory critics for "posturing".

From this little skirmish you might easily get the impression that the Green Deal is a Lib Dem policy, opposed by Tories. That isn't quite the case. Greg Barker, the Conservative climate change minister, has defended the programme, pointing out that it is inscribed in the coalition agreement. David Cameron himself has regularly cited it as evidence of his government's eco-credentials. The Prime Minister has, in the past at least, been quite enamoured of the policy. A market-driven device, harnessing the aggregate power of many individual consumers to achieve a great environmental goal and improve Britain's housing stock; bottom-up solutions from ordinary households instead of top-down state meddling - it all seemed so clever, modern, progressive … so big society!

The problem is that it relies on two important drivers over which government has little control: First, private sector companies must offer competitive Green Deal packages and, second, consumer demand has to hold up for the market to work. People will have to borrow money to do the relevant improvements. The policy is designed in such a way that households should always gain more from cheaper bills so, in net terms, they are better off. But in the current climate, borrowing at all is a toxic concept for many people. Industry sources are whispering quietly that the whole project is way off track and might unravel altogether.

Much of the financing early on will end up coming from the fledgling Green Investment Bank. The Department for Energy and Climate Change insists this was always meant to be the case, but that doesn't quite square with the idea of a programme driven by the private sector. It looks more like one government green policy bailing out another one.

Presumably, the Tory ministers sharpening their knives for the Green Deal are well aware that it might fall over of its own accord. Under such circumstances it doesn't do any harm to line up a good we told you so" especially one that plays well with Conservative party grass roots. The interesting thing to watch will be whether Cameron continues to stand by the Green Deal and cite it as a badge of eco-honour or discreetly distances himself from it.

If the PM treats it as a fully fledged coalition policy, Heaven and Earth will be moved to make it work. If, however, Downing Street allows it to be portrayed as a purely Lib Dem initiative a hobby horse of the junior partner, conceived by an ex-Secretary of State currently awaiting trial for a driving offence we'll know the Green Deal is being lined up for the chop.

The Green deal aims to protect house owners against rising heating costs Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.