Tim Yeo is right to challenge Osborne's anti-green agenda

The Lib Dems need to resist the Chancellor's short-term thinking.

Tim Yeo, Conservative MP and chair of the energy and climate change select committee, has issued a stinging rebuke to George Osborne’s Treasury for their meddling in the design of the government’s flagship energy bill. He has called for Ed Davey’s department to "escape the control of the Treasury" which "has never been signed up to the green agenda".

Yeo’s select committee publish their pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft energy bill today. The report highlights the battle that Davey and DECC are losing to Osborne and the Treasury. Three major concerns are highlighted.

First, the proposed "contracts for difference," which are meant to encourage investment in low-carbon energy production, are criticised as "unworkable". Writing in today’s Financial Times, Yeo outlines how the simple, long-term contracts underwritten by the Treasury which were proposed in DECC’s original consultation "rang alarm bells in the Treasury". As a result they were "struck out of the draft bill" and replaced with "an alternative contract system so complex and confusing it may not be legally enforceable".

The committee go on to set out related concerns around the contractual regime. These include concerns that:

  • The reforms may squeeze smaller independent companies out of the electricity market resulting in even greater levels of market concentration;
  • A cap on green levies imposed by the Treasury may result in higher costs for consumers; and
  • The proposed process for setting the guaranteed price that nuclear generators can expect to receive for creating electricity "lacks sufficient transparency"

Second, Yeo’s committee says that the government should "set a clear target to largely decarbonise the electricity sector by 2030, giving investors certainty about the direction of energy policy." This follows pressure from a number of NGOs and think tanks, including IPPR, which submitted evidence to the review. The government’s advisory body, the committee on climate change, had stated that "the carbon intensity of power will need to fall from around 500g/kWh today to 50g/kWh in 2030". But the draft energy bill reduced this ambition by stating only that ‘power sector emissions need to be largely decarbonised by the 2030s’ with carbon emissions intensity at 100gCO2/kWh.

In our submission we stated that:

“The bill should be explicitly tied to the carbon budgets by setting a target to r educe the carbon intensity of the grid to 50gCO2/kWh by 2030. This is the most important step the government can take to provide certainty to industry about the direction for the energy market.”

The select committee has adopted our suggestion and recommends that:

“The Government should set a 2030 carbon intensity target for the electricity sector in secondary legislation based on the recommendation of the Committee on Climate Change.”

In a leaked letter, Osborne has explicitly called for Davey to reject this recommendation on grounds that it would be "inefficient" and "inflexible" and, instead, support polluting, "unabated gas" up to 2030 and beyond. Davey must reject his advice and heed Greenpeace’s warning that "the 2030 goal is the most significant test of the Lib Dems energy and environment credentials. If they cave in now they will be judged to have failed."

Third, the select committee report says the draft bill is "fundamentally flawed by the lack of consideration given to demand-side measures, which are potentially the cheapest methods of decarbonising our electricity system." They estimate that current policy is only delivering around one-third of the potential reduction in energy demand that is needed by 2030. Among other ideas they call for "the draft Bill to provide the Secretary of State with powers to introduce a Feed In Tariff for energy efficiency, if this cannot be achieved through existing legislation."

Yeo’s outspoken attack on the Treasury, which refused to give evidence to the select committee, shows that concerns about Osborne’s role extend deep within the Conservative party. But the report also shows that, once again, the Lib Dems are losing out to the Tories in Whitehall. To step out of the shadow of his predecessor, Davey must go back to the drawing board and develop proposals which will keep energy bills down, improve competition and encourage essential investment, rather than deferring to the short-term thinking of Osborne.

Conservative MP Tim Yeo said the Treasury had "never been signed up to the green agenda". Photograph: Getty Images.

Will Straw was Director of Britain Stronger In Europe, the cross-party campaign to keep Britain in the European Union. 

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.