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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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.