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

Photo: Getty
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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.