How will Ed Davey strike back at Osborne?

The Energy Secretary has been undermined and humiliated by the Chancellor's machinations on wind power. He must reassert his authority.

It is not a surprise to learn that some Tory backbenchers don’t like onshore wind turbines. Indeed, any politician in a rural constituency, including Lib Dems in the south west and local councillors all over and from all parties, will testify to the fact that nothing packs a town hall with irate constituents like a meeting about a planned windmill.

One such MP recently suggested to me that this passion owed more to people’s sense of disempowerment than to objections to the principle of renewable energy. The feeling runs high that forces mustered elsewhere, not from the local community, uninterested in local concerns, were launching a kind of metropolitan colonisation of the landscape.  Nonetheless, that anger has been effectively mobilised and channelled by people who also happen not to think that climate change is a problem – or at the very least, not a problem to which public investment in renewable energy in the form of onshore wind power is a solution.

It is clear from recent events that such a view has a strong hold on the parliamentary Conservative party. It would also appear to be discreetly encouraged by George Osborne. I reported some weeks ago that the Chancellor is, in private, scathing about environmental regulations seeing them as a tedious impediment to business and a brake on growth. He is said to be quite dismissive of the Climate Change Act, which commits Britain to reduce its carbon emissions. He is, however, stuck with it.

That hasn’t stopped him apparently nurturing the feeling among Tory backbenchers that the environmentalists’ windmill fetish is a legitimate target for attack, regardless of what official coalition policy might have to say on the matter.

Partly, I suspect, this is driven by a recognition that the restive right wing of the Conservative party needs feeding if it is not to start committing acts of dangerous sabotage against the whole Cameron-Osborne project, and green policies make a tender and tasty-looking sacrificial lamb. Osborne is often said to be preoccupied by the strategic threat from Ukip and anti-turbinery is just the kind of protest issue that fires up the Faragists. It is also remarkable how Tory backbench anti-greenery is coloured with spite towards the Lib Dems who see themselves as worthy stewards of environmentalism in government.

Besides, opinion polls show the public are not terribly interested in environmental policy. Focus groups reveal something closer to actual hostility. Hard-pressed voters associate green issues with middle class affectation – shopping for over-priced organic vegetables in exclusive farmers’ markets etc. As a diligent student of the polls, Osborne will have concluded that he can safely ditch his party’s eco-credentials. This rather ignores the fact that one of the few things people knew David Cameron claimed to believe in before the election was the sanctity of the environment. Regardless of whether they share that belief, voters will still see its cavalier abandonment as a sign of unprincipled flakiness. But, as I wrote in my column this week in relation to welfare cuts, the Tory high command has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to judging what will harm their brand – even when they appear to have built their entire political project on image management.

The news in recent days – the revelation that the Tories’ campaign manager in the Corby by-election appeared to be freelance pimping for a potential anti-turbine candidate – has brought into the open the extent to which Conservative policy on this issue is being discreetly set in deference to the Quixotic* tendency.

It also raises the question of what Ed Davey, the Lib Dem Secretary of State for Climate Change, plans to do about it. Immediately after the last cabinet reshuffle, the Lib Dems alleged that the promotion of John Hayes (Minister of State for Energy) and Owen Paterson (Secretary of State at DEFRA) were hostile acts orchestrated by Osborne to undermine Davey. That view has now been pretty comprehensively confirmed.

That leaves the credibility of Davey in serious doubt. What authority does he have as a cabinet minister when the Chancellor is known to be manoeuvring around him. The Lib Dems don’t have enough heavyweight cabinet figures or emblematic policy issues to let one just slip away into impotence and ridicule. Davey will surely have to strike back somehow and reassert his authority. 

*Tilting at windmills. (Sorry.)

Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage