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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle