Enough is enough: this dash for gas has gone too far

Osborne's dogmatism will keep Britain hooked on expensive foreign imports and do nothing to tackle high fuel bills.

"Enough is enough", energy minister John Hayes proclaimed last week as he propelled himself into the headlines and a full-blown war of words over the future of British wind power. But unhelpful as his intervention was, his very public tussle with the Energy Secretary, Ed Davey, was a mere sideshow compared to murky dealings over energy policy going on behind closed doors in Whitehall, with the ministerial "quad" – David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne and Danny Alexander – expected to meet again soon.

This anti-wind rhetoric obscures another government agenda: a new dash for gas that will keep Britain hooked on expensive foreign imports and do nothing to tackle high fuel bills. This week, Friends of the Earth revealed that the coalition is preparing to write a blank cheque for the gas industry to build new gas plants. Outrageously, it’s exempting back-up gas power stations from the Levy Control Framework, a set of Treasury rules which restrict public spending on energy. The result is likely to be a huge rash of investment in gas, funded by taxpayers, which could see more gas power stations being built than are needed.

Friends of the Earth accepts that we need some gas as a back up while the UK makes the shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and this includes a small amount of unabated gas – without Carbon Capture and Storage – to be maintained as back-up capacity. But pledging unlimited sums of public cash for this end is madness. In effect, you and I could end up paying for gas power plants that, if run at full whack, risk busting our targets to tackle climate change. In fact, we could end up paying for them not to run at all, when the penny finally drops that too many have been consented, and all we’re left with is stranded assets.

So why are they doing it? The Treasury has pressed hard for these gas power stations to be exempt from the rules, and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) appears to have conceded without a fight. Nervous ministers may be listening to scare-mongering about renewable energy making the lights go out. But I suspect it has a lot more to do with the Chancellor, hell-bent on moving the government away from its green commitments at any cost to the economy, against the wishes of senior politicians and business including the CBI.

Let’s not forget the long string of free lunches that Osborne has handed to the gas industry over the past year. First came the announcement from the Energy Secretary in March that made green groups despair: "we can’t take our foot off the gas for some time yet". Davey was allowing new gas plants to pump out carbon at 450gCO2/kWh until 2045, which, given most modern gas plants emit just under 400g, was effectively a free permit to pollute for the next three decades.

I strongly suspect the decision was made by a novice minister under pressure from Osborne, without enough briefing from civil servants. It was accompanied by a pledge to develop a Gas Strategy, the rationale for which officials have privately conceded to be ‘because the gas industry felt left out’.

Then, in July, came news of a leaked letter to from the Chancellor to Davey, demanding the government issue "a statement which gives a clear, strong signal that we regard unabated gas as able to play a core part of our electricity generation to at least 2030". Cue a dutifully trotted out press release from DECC, the wording of which appeared to be practically lifted from Osborne’s letter. A few days later, the Chancellor’s father-in-law Lord Howell was exposed as an influential oil and gas lobbyist. The pieces of the jigsaw were slowly falling into place.

September saw more tax breaks for North Sea oil and gas, and an announcement that Osborne would consult over a new tax regime for shale. Then came Davey’s assurances to the gas industry in October that he expects 20GW of new gas to be built between now and 2030 – completely at odds with the Committee on Climate Change, which sees just 6.5GW of new gas by the same date.

It’s not hard to see who’s pulling the Energy Secretary’s strings. Taken together, these concessions add up to a covert strategy of support for gas by a Chancellor who appears in hock to the fossil fuel industry, whose economic calculations are frighteningly short-termist, and who sees green policies as a burden instead of an opportunity for growth.

The Treasury is lobbying hard to restrict future investment in clean energy through the upcoming Energy Bill, expected in Parliament this month. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change the way we source our power for the next 20 years – and our booming green economy is at stake, which now accounts for almost a million jobs.

Enough is enough. It’s time for Cameron to stop the dash for gas in its tracks and urgently lay down a clear pathway for clean British energy.

Guy Shrubsole is energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth

Chancellor George Osborne is pushing for the government to restrict future investment in clean energy. Photograph: Getty Images.

Guy Shrubsole is energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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