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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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

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As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.