Commons Confidential: Whose gag is it anyway?

Let's see who wants to line up and claim Ed Miliband's “Is there anything he can organise in a brewery?” PMQs zinger as their own work.

Tristram Hunt, the man about town, suave historian and Labour MP for the Potteries, is evidently considered worth three of his party colleagues. The Zac Goldsmith lookalike pulled out of a seminar in London on employee ownership, organised by the right-leaning Social Market Foundation. Chi Onwurah, a shadow business minister, told the assembled policy wonkers that she was standing in for Hunt. What a coincidence, muttered John Woodcock, on sabbatical from the Labour front bench to recover from a fall: he’d been asked to cover for him, too. Most odd, piped up Ian Murray, also in Labour’s business team; the leader’s office had asked him to pop along in Hunt’s place as well.

What had detained Hunt, requiring three substitutes? I trust he wasn’t writing his nice little earner on the poorly Queen that appeared in the next morning’s Times . . .

The Sun’s front page, which channelled Winston Churchill to oppose statutory press regulation, triggered an outbreak of spluttering in the Commons tearoom. Contact details of Churchill’s grandson Nicholas Soames, the Tory MP for Mid Sussex, were found, I am reliably informed, in the files of News International’s hired hacker Glenn Mulcaire. Fatty is chummy with the Prince of Wales. My snout imagined the doubly outraged wartime leader didn’t know which way to spin in his grave.

Tuckerman, the posh, London-based estate agents, emailed MPs details of a Victorian pad in St James’s, a few minutes’ walk from parliament. The flat has a spacious reception, double bedroom, fitted kitchen and bathroom. “The property is advertised for £390 per week,” Tuckerman said, “but the landlord would take an offer to fall in line with the parliamentary allowance.”

The limit MPs can claim is £335. The housing benefit ceiling for a one-bedroom place is £250. Shouldn’t the cap on MPs’ second homes be in line with that of first homes for the electorate?

Every good gag is claimed by many parents. I was knocked down by the rush of Tony Blair’s staff boasting that they’d come up with his line, “I don’t have to worry about Cherie running off with the bloke next door,” at the expense of Gordon Brown. To avoid impostors stealing the credit for Ed Miliband’s “Is there anything he can organise in a brewery?” zinger that destroyed Cameron at PMQs, I can reveal that the gagmeister was the research star Tom Hamilton. Fraudulent claimants, please form an orderly queue.

Michael Fabricant’s blond weave makes the tweeting Tory look like a poor man’s Boris Johnson. The comparison is cosmetic. A right-whinger swears Mickey, a party vice-chair, appeared to be wearing make-up when he bumped into him in Westminster. The Lichfield Lip hadn’t, I ascertained, come hot-faced from a TV studio. Very hug-a-husky Cameroonism.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Ed Miliband. Photograph: Getty Images

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.