It is rare to find full-bodied enthusiasm for the European Union in British politics these days. The Liberal Democrats are known as the party that is fondest of the EU but, mindful of public scepticism, it is not something they shout about.
Edward Davey is an exception. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is evangelical about British engagement in Brussels. His portfolio demands it. Few policy areas are more dependent on cross-border collaboration. “Energy is one of those things that brings Europe together,” says Davey, “in terms of our security needs, affordable energy and climate change.” Carbon emissions do not respect national boundaries.
Davey’s Europhilia pre-dates his current job, though. As a junior minister in the Business department he always travelled with a pocket-sized guide to the complex Brussels “qualified majority” voting system, producing the dog-eared flyer in meetings and explaining its intricacies with much the same fervour as a railway enthusiast might use to outline the wonder of a train timetable.
And yet the Lib Dems are in coalition with a party whose MPs wear hostility to Brussels as a badge of honour. Does Davey feel discouraged by Tory Euroscepticism? Not at all, apparently. “In due course, this government might well turn out to be seen as more constructive, more engaged, indeed, more pro-European than its Labour predecessor,” he says.
We are ensconced in a corner of the Pugin Room, a small tea shop inside the Palace of Westminster that feels, by virtue of its fading grandeur and view of the Thames, like the dining suite of a seaside hotel. The conversation starts on energy policy, but a pot of tea and a gin and tonic later it has turned to Brussels. Davey is trying to persuade me that the coalition is wedded to the European project.
“It’s not just Liberal Democrat ministers, but Conservative ministers who are really engaged.” This includes David Cameron and the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, both of whom Davey praises for following what he calls “the old Heseltine line” that “the British national interest is served by being at the table”.
That is not how it seemed last December, when Cameron flounced out of a Brussels summit and vetoed a pan-European fiscal treaty. The move delighted his party and prompted an opinion-poll surge. Tory backbenchers thought Britain was set on a path of irreversible divergence from the rest of the EU. What is Davey’s interpretation of the veto? “I hope and believe it will be seen as a blip.”
That account will enrage the right wing of the Tory party, which nurtures a deep resentment of the influence that Lib Dems wield over government. These Tories see the near collapse of the single currency as vindication of their long-held scepticism and proof that Nick Clegg’s party (which historically has advocated membership of the euro) is a menace to national sovereignty. Do the Lib Dems concede that, with hindsight, joining the single currency would have been a rubbish idea?
“I certainly don’t think we should be joining in the next few years.” Yet he doesn’t rule it out? “You’d be an unwise person ever to rule something out totally.” (The Tory leadership has done just that.)
Davey is mostly liked by his Conservative colleagues, chiefly because his predecessor Chris Huhne was reviled. Huhne was seen as gratuitously pugnacious in cabinet and tribally hostile to the Tories. Davey, by contrast, is a close ally of Clegg and is viewed as a more harmonious contributor at the coalition top table.
Nonetheless, the job of Energy Secretary automatically generates tension with Conservative backbenchers. On Davey’s first day in the job, more than 100 Tory MPs published an open letter to the Prime Minister opposing government subsidies for onshore windfarms. The prospect of towering turbines in rural areas causes constituency headaches for many. It was hoped that Huhne’s departure might open the space for a U-turn. They will be disappointed, Davey says. “I’ve been very clear and the Prime Minister has been clear that onshore wind is very much part of our strategy.”
The hated windmills are doubly vital. First, Britain needs all the new sources of power it can find as infrastructure decays – about 60 power stations are due to go offline in the next decade. Second, the UK has international treaty obligations to cut its carbon emissions.
Davey, a management consultant before he became an MP, insists it was the environment that lured him into politics. Green issues are, he says, “part of what makes you a Lib Dem” and are “in the party’s DNA”. As evidence of eco-achievements in office, he points to the creation of a Green Investment Bank and the Green Deal – a plan to use private-sector incentives to finance mass home insulation.
Environmental campaigners are not persuaded. They were particularly alarmed when, in a party conference speech last year, George Osborne seemed explicitly to downgrade the government’s green ambitions on the grounds that economic growth was the greater priority. “We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business,” he said.
A misunderstanding, says Davey, though he concedes that the speech “seemed to some people to be making that distinction”. The Chancellor’s latest Budget, however, is supposed to restore the coalition’s environmental credentials with taxes on company cars and a refusal to relax fuel duty. (Raising revenue from motorists is a more obvious motive than reducing emissions.)
One area where growth policy and the environment plainly clash is the battle over airport capacity. The UK needs more, say business leaders. Aviation is an environmental catastrophe, green campaigners retort. Davey rejects suggestions that the government might abandon its objection to a third runway at Heathrow: “It’s a coalition commitment. I can’t see how it can happen in this parliament.” He points out that Justine Greening, the Transport Secretary, has a constituency in south-west London, where Heathrow expansion would be most unpopular.
What about “Boris Island”, the Mayor of London’s scheme to build a floating runway on the Thames east of the capital? Downing Street is said to be reluctant to rule it out, at least while Johnson is campaigning for re-election. “Er . . . we’re not in favour of a new airport on the estuary, no.” The hesitation sounds to me as if there is flexibility on the matter. “I didn’t say that.”
Davey is a veteran of arguments with the Tories about what might spur growth. At the Business department, he fought at Vince Cable’s side in a war with Downing Street over the Beecroft review. This was a set of proposals by Adrian Beecroft, a multimillionaire venture capitalist, that aimed to boost economic competitiveness, principally by scrapping employee rights. The assumption was that excessive regulation prevents businesses from hiring staff.
The Lib Dems accepted some changes but kicked much of the review into the long grass. Davey rejects the basic premise of Beecroft’s analysis. “I never bought the argument that our labour market was the most regulated there is. All the evidence shows we have one of the least regulated labour markets in the world.”
Bee in his bonnet
As well as being a venture capitalist, Beecroft is a Tory party donor – not one, it must be said, who was identified as a supper companion of the Camerons in the recent “cash-for-access” scandal. In the light of that row, though, is it problematic that a financial benefactor of the Conservative Party was invited to conduct a policy review at all? “It reinforces the case for reform of party finance,” Davey fires back. “Whether it’s Beecroft or anyone else, I don’t think the British people want to see individuals, companies or unions being the paymasters of political parties.”
The Lib Dem preference is for a model of caps on individual donations coupled with increased state funding: “For tiny sums, we could make sure we don’t have these scandals ever again.” That discussion, however, will test coalition harmony. On which topic, we find ourselves drawn back, inevitably, to Europe.
There is one subject that preys on the minds of EU nerds but has not yet registered on the mainstream news agenda. Before June 2014, Britain must decide whether to continue participating in a raft of European criminal justice agreements. This is an “opt-in” arrangement under the Lisbon Treaty, which most Tories despise. Conservative backbenchers especially loathe the European Arrest Warrant, which they see as a device for whisking innocent British citizens off to dodgy foreign jails.
The Lib Dems, by contrast, are enthusiasts. The subject brings Davey to a Europhiliac climax: “The European Arrest Warrant has seen murderers, rapists, terrorists, bank robbers, some of the nastiest, most evil people who have escaped justice brought back to this country to serve at Her Majesty’s pleasure.”
But, given the pressure the Prime Minister is under from his own side to “repatriate” powers from Brussels, surely he will grab the opportunity to kill off British involvement in an EU integration project at a stroke; no votes needed in parliament, no referendum. It is an easy win. Davey disagrees: “It would be playing fast and loose with law and order to pull out.” The decision might not be due for two years, but the question is rising up the agenda. Tory backbenchers have already written to Cameron urging him to take a hard sceptic line. “There will be some interesting debates before then,” Davey says.
It seems those debates can’t come soon enough for one Lib Dem cabinet minister.
A couple of days after our interview, Ed Davey’s department was caught up in a national frenzy. The prospect of a strike by tanker drivers, combined with advice from the Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude that seemed to encourage hoarding petrol, led to panic buying. Davey defends the decision to alert the public on the grounds that the strike threat was real.
“We were damned if we did raise awareness and damned if we didn’t,” he says, interrupting a break in Dorset for a phone catch-up. “There was a general feeling that the public weren’t as aware as they needed to be.”
What about the suggestion from some Tory MPs that senior Conservatives saw their confrontation with tanker drivers as a political opportunity, equivalent to Margaret Thatcher’s clash with the miners? “I haven’t been involved in any discussion or seen any evidence to corroborate that.”
But coalition ministers have certainly discussed one party-political dimension to a strike: “The only partisan issue to come up is that Unite is a major donor to the Labour Party and [the Unite general secretary] Len McCluskey has had dinner many times with Ed Miliband. That has been mentioned, it’s fair to say.