Would a new Lib Dem leader help the Tories win in 2015?

Why some Tories believe that the replacement of Clegg with Vince Cable or Tim Farron is essential to their election chances.

One of the reasons why some Conservatives believe it will be impossible for David Cameron to win a majority at the next election is the scale of the defection of Liberal Democrat supporters to Labour. If Ed Miliband's party hangs on to around a third of the Lib Dems' 2010 voters, the Tories stand to lose dozens of seats at the next election - there are 37 Conservative-Labour marginals where the third place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory. In the 1980s, it was the formation of the Social Democratic Party and the resultant split in the centre-left vote that allowed Margaret Thatcher to win successive landslide victories. In 2015, the collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats and the reunification of the left around Labour could bring Miliband to power.

This fact has led some Conservatives to wonder aloud whether a change of Liberal Democrat leader before 2015 is now in their interests. The hope is that a more left-wing leader such as Vince Cable or Tim Farron, both of whom have signalled their availability, could prompt the party's former supporters to return home from Labour. ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie recently told me that "a left-wing replacement" of Nick Clegg in 2014 was "vital to Tory hopes".

Those with an interest in a Lib Dem recovery have been encouraged by polls showing that the party would perform better with Cable as leader. A ComRes survey last September showed that support for the Lib Dems would rise to 18 per cent under Cable, compared to 14 per cent under Clegg. However, it is doubtful whether this bounce would last once Cable was forced to take responsibility for all coalition decisions (something he has skillfully avoided doing to date. Few would know, for instance, that it was Cable's department that introduced higher tuition fees) It is also the case that the party's former left-wing supporters, those who defected from Labour over Iraq and top-up fees, are likely to prove the hardest to win back.

But as we get closer to the election, this discussion will be had with increasing frequency in Lib Dem and Tory circles. If the Lib Dems are still flatlining at 10 per cent in the polls in 2014, it is hard to see the party not taking a gamble on an alternative leader. The dilemma for the Tories is whether to help shore up Clegg's position, for the sake of coalition unity, or to tacitly encourage a revolt against him.

A poll in 2012 suggested that Liberal Democrat support would increase to 18 per cent with Vince Cable as leader. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Debunking Boris Johnson's claim that energy bills will be lower if we leave the EU

Why the Brexiteers' energy policy is less power to the people and more electric shock.

Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have promised that they will end VAT on domestic energy bills if the country votes to leave in the EU referendum. This would save Britain £2bn, or "over £60" per household, they claimed in The Sun this morning.

They are right that this is not something that could be done without leaving the Union. But is such a promise responsible? Might Brexit in fact cost us much more in increased energy bills than an end to VAT could ever hope to save? Quite probably.

Let’s do the maths...

In 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, the UK imported 46 per cent of our total energy supply. Over 20 other countries helped us keep our lights on, from Russian coal to Norwegian gas. And according to Energy Secretary Amber Rudd, this trend is only set to continue (regardless of the potential for domestic fracking), thanks to our declining reserves of North Sea gas and oil.


Click to enlarge.

The reliance on imports makes the UK highly vulnerable to fluctuations in the value of the pound: the lower its value, the more we have to pay for anything we import. This is a situation that could spell disaster in the case of a Brexit, with the Treasury estimating that a vote to leave could cause the pound to fall by 12 per cent.

So what does this mean for our energy bills? According to December’s figures from the Office of National Statistics, the average UK household spends £25.80 a week on gas, electricity and other fuels, which adds up to £35.7bn a year across the UK. And if roughly 45 per cent (£16.4bn) of that amount is based on imports, then a devaluation of the pound could cause their cost to rise 12 per cent – to £18.4bn.

This would represent a 5.6 per cent increase in our total spending on domestic energy, bringing the annual cost up to £37.7bn, and resulting in a £75 a year rise per average household. That’s £11 more than the Brexiteers have promised removing VAT would reduce bills by. 

This is a rough estimate – and adjustments would have to be made to account for the varying exchange rates of the countries we trade with, as well as the proportion of the energy imports that are allocated to domestic use – but it makes a start at holding Johnson and Gove’s latest figures to account.

Here are five other ways in which leaving the EU could risk soaring energy prices:

We would have less control over EU energy policy

A new report from Chatham House argues that the deeply integrated nature of the UK’s energy system means that we couldn’t simply switch-off our energy relationship with the EU. “It would be neither possible nor desirable to ‘unplug’ the UK from Europe’s energy networks,” they argue. “A degree of continued adherence to EU market, environmental and governance rules would be inevitable.”

Exclusion from Europe’s Internal Energy Market could have a long-term negative impact

Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Amber Rudd said that a Brexit was likely to produce an “electric shock” for UK energy customers – with costs spiralling upwards “by at least half a billion pounds a year”. This claim was based on Vivid Economic’s report for the National Grid, which warned that if Britain was excluded from the IEM, the potential impact “could be up to £500m per year by the early 2020s”.

Brexit could make our energy supply less secure

Rudd has also stressed  the risks to energy security that a vote to Leave could entail. In a speech made last Thursday, she pointed her finger particularly in the direction of Vladamir Putin and his ability to bloc gas supplies to the UK: “As a bloc of 500 million people we have the power to force Putin’s hand. We can coordinate our response to a crisis.”

It could also choke investment into British energy infrastructure

£45bn was invested in Britain’s energy system from elsewhere in the EU in 2014. But the German industrial conglomerate Siemens, who makes hundreds of the turbines used the UK’s offshore windfarsm, has warned that Brexit “could make the UK a less attractive place to do business”.

Petrol costs would also rise

The AA has warned that leaving the EU could cause petrol prices to rise by as much 19p a litre. That’s an extra £10 every time you fill up the family car. More cautious estimates, such as that from the RAC, still see pump prices rising by £2 per tank.

The EU is an invaluable ally in the fight against Climate Change

At a speech at a solar farm in Lincolnshire last Friday, Jeremy Corbyn argued that the need for co-orinated energy policy is now greater than ever “Climate change is one of the greatest fights of our generation and, at a time when the Government has scrapped funding for green projects, it is vital that we remain in the EU so we can keep accessing valuable funding streams to protect our environment.”

Corbyn’s statement builds upon the statements made by Green Party MEP, Keith Taylor, whose consultations with research groups have stressed the importance of maintaining the EU’s energy efficiency directive: “Outside the EU, the government’s zeal for deregulation will put a kibosh on the progress made on energy efficiency in Britain.”

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.