Osborne's anti-green crusade is self-defeating

The Chancellor appears intent on strangling one sector of the economy that is growing.

On the very same day it emerged that our economy has worsened and shrunk in the worst double-dip recession for fifty years, one sector of the British economy that is bucking the trend, providing new growth and jobs, is now under siege from the Chancellor.

According to the CBI this month, green business accounted for more than a third of all UK growth last year. In a keynote speech a couple of weeks ago CBI chief John Cridland said:

The choice between going green and going for growth is a false choice. Green and growth do go together...  The UK’s low-carbon and environmental goods and services market is worth more than £120bn a year. That’s equivalent to more than eight per cent of GDP… It’s made up of some 50,000 firms, between them employing 940,000 people - two-thirds outside London and the South East – across many different sectors.

You would think the Treasury would be delighted by this story of green jobs and British business success. Certainly William Hague recognised the political and economic attractiveness of this sector. A few months ago he wrote privately to the Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues, “The low carbon economy is at the leading edge of a structural shift now taking place globally … we need to stay abreast of this, given our need for an export-led recovery and for inward investment in modern infrastructure and advanced manufacturing.” Hague continued, “I believe we should reframe our response to climate change as an imperative for growth.”

But instead of heeding this advice and welcoming new clean tech investment in the UK, the FT’s Jim Pickard revealed on Monday how George Osborne has been secretly demanding Lib Dem Energy Secretary Ed Davey ditch renewable energy programmes as well as essential 2030 goals aimed at driving investment into advanced energy technologies and reducing carbon emissions from electricity generation. The leaked letter exposed how in an attempt to woo a narrow minority of frustrated Tea Party Tory backbenchers, the Chancellor has been seeking to pull the rug from under Britain’s clean energy industries for petty party politicking.  

The chairman of the energy and climate change select committee, Conservative Tim Yeo told the BBC: “The Treasury has clearly intervened in the draft (energy) bill in a way that will put up bills to consumers and put off investors by increasing their risks.” He added, “Under the guise of reducing bills for consumers, the chancellor will actually be increasing consumers' bills…I don't know if the back-benchers realise this but surely the Treasury does - yet it keeps pressing on with an action that's clearly political to assuage MPs who don't like turbines in the countryside.” It may also have a lot to do with his cosy relationship with the gas lobby.

The same Osborne who in opposition pledged, “I see in this green recovery not just the fight against climate change, but the fight for jobs, the fight for new industry,” has instead been fighting to abandon the framework his own advisers says is required to make carbon emission reductions set out in the Climate Change Act, and axe the schemes designed to boost the wind industry.

He’s turned the green economy and almost a million jobs into a political football, but the Chancellor’s anti-green crusade extends beyond interfering with just the energy brief. His efforts to appease his more swivel-eyed backbenchers means Osborne has even had his people briefing against the Transport Secretary Justine Greening for her principled refusal to U-turn on the expansion of Heathrow airport.

After the failed woodland sell off, the furore over planning reforms that looked like a developers’ charter, the plans to shoot badgers and capture buzzards, the Green Bank that isn’t actually a Bank at all, the taxpayer hand-outs to the oil and gas industry – and now most important of all, the Chancellor’s attacks on our national climate change commitments, David Cameron’s huskies are long slayed. But when will Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats stand up and say enough?

George Osborne has a "cosy relationship with the gas lobby". Photograph: Getty Images.

Joss Garman is associate fellow on climate change and energy at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

Photo: Getty
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The promises of Brexit can't be kept. You can only decide which bits to betray

Vote Leave's great success was in presenting a menu of contradictory options as if they could all be secured. 

If Britain leaves the European Union but retains its membership of the single market and the customs union, has it really left? Barry Gardiner doesn’t think so. Labour’s shadow trade secretary, writing for the Guardian, argues that to satisfy those who voted Leave, Britain must regain control of its own borders – forcing it out of the single market in order to lose free movement rights – and its own laws, forcing it out of both the customs union and single market to avoid regulatory harmonisation.

Jeremy Corbyn has argued that single market membership and EU membership are one and the same, as has Caroline Flint. They have kept the options open on the customs union. Are they right?

As I wrote yesterday, it’s hard to explain what drove Britain’s Brexit vote without conceding that objections to the rules of the single market played a significant role. Gardiner is undoubtedly right to say that two of the biggest drivers of the vote were control over borders and laws, both of which cannot be achieved while remaining within the single market. Neither can the third biggest driver, which was more money for public services in general and the NHS in particular – that £350m a week. Because if the United Kingdom retains its single market membership, it will continue to “send money to Brussels”.

There’s a “but” coming, though, and it’s a big one. The first problem is that while the majority of people who voted to leave did so for reasons that cannot be fulfilled if we remain in the single market, those votes weren’t enough to take Britain out of the European Union. Leave only triumphed because it also secured the votes of people who thought it would take the country out of the political project but would retain a Norway-style arrangement.

The second is that those three big mandates cannot be reconciled with each other. If the United Kingdom leaves the single market and the customs union, then the promise of more money for the NHS will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to deliver, at least not in the way that people envisaged. (When people said they wanted £350m extra in the NHS, they didn’t mean “in order to pay for drugs that are more expensive, to recoup the cost of our new regulatory regime and to plug the recruitment gap left by EU citizens with high-priced locums”. They meant that the NHS would do everything it does now and more, not run to stand still.)

The great success of Vote Leave was in presenting a whole menu of contradictory options as if they could be served on one dish. But you cannot have the Extra Hot and the Lemon & Herb on the same piece of chicken. You have to choose. The big failure of the political class has been not to advocate for one of those options over the other. (Theresa May has effectively been running on a ticket of “Extra Hot, Lemon & Herb, and the French will pay for it”.)

You cannot have a Brexit that unlocks trade deals with India and the rest of the BRICS (five major emerging national economies) and reduce the uncontrolled flow of people from elsewhere around the world to the UK. You can’t have a more generously-funded public realm and pursue a Brexit that makes everyone poorer. You have to choose. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.