Why MPs must block George Osborne’s dash for gas

The Chancellor's plans will cost bill payers £25bn more in the 2020s than developing low-carbon energy and breach the UK's climate change targets.

The next 20 years, starting now, will see colossal investment in overhauling Britain’s ageing electricity infrastructure, as old coal and nuclear power stations are closed, and the grid gets updated. A vote in Parliament this week on a clean power target amendment to the government’s Energy Bill will determine what sorts of new kit we will get.

The battle lines are drawn over competing visions of the future. A fossil-fuelled, Treasury and George Osborne future, involving tripling the amount of electricity we get from gas, or a low-carbon future, involving ramping up the power we get from Britain’s near-limitless resources from the waves, water, wind, tides and sun.

At stake are living standards, jobs and the economy, and climate change. Domestic fuel bills will soar if we stay chained to volatile global gas prices - it is spiralling gas price rises which have been responsible for the majority of people’s electricity and gas bill rises in the last decade. The independent committee on climate change’s analysis shows that Osborne’s dash-for-gas will cost bill payers £25bn more in the 2020s than developing low-carbon energy. At a time of squeezed living standards, households are handing over larger and larger shares of their income to the big six energy companies. Only a massive programme of energy efficiency that gets the UK off the fossil fuel hook can protect ordinary people.

There are hundreds of thousands of jobs in the green economy, one of the few sectors to grow in recession-hit Britain. But its future is uncertain. A huge coalition of more than 200 leading businesses, energy investors, trade unions and charities, including household names like Asda and Microsoft, as well as leading manufacturers like Siemens, Mitsubishi, Alstom, are saying a decarbonisation target in the Energy Bill is essential to give companies the confidence to invest in low carbon energy and the supply chains to build it.

If Osborne gets his way, there is no question that the UK will breach its legally binding climate change targets. The difference between the Chancellor's vision and low-carbon power is staggering. Osborne’s plans involve increasing the amount of gas-power in the 2020s to the equivalent of over 30 new gas power plants. This amounts to over 500 million extra tonnes of carbon dioxide: equivalent to every car and taxi on the road for eight years, or every flight for 16 years.

Where will Osborne’s gas come from? North Sea gas reserves are falling fast. So we can either massively increase our energy dependence on gas imports from countries like Qatar, or we can try and plug the gap with shale gas – but for that to provide more than a fraction of our needs we would need thousands of wells across the country. Both these options look like political poison. A recent article on ConservativeHome, "The right-wing consensus on shale gas is about to be blown apart", concluded: "shale gas must also have a huge physical presence across large swathes of rural England. .. it will have political consequences – bigger than wind farms, bigger than HS2 and bigger, even, than greenfield housing development".

All economies need to get off fossil fuels and fast. Electricity is the place to start. MPs get to decide this Tuesday. Nearly 300 MPs from across all parties back the decarbonisation target. The vote will be close. Full turn-out from Labour (who back the target), and a few more Conservative and Liberal Democrats (whose policy it is to support the target but whose leadership is currently siding with Osborne) will help put the UK at the forefront of a clean energy revolution. As Sir John Ashton, the UK’s former climate change envoy said this month: "I can’t myself see how any MP who votes against the target will thereafter be able credibly to claim that they support an effective response to climate change".

Simon Bullock is senior campaigner on climate change at Friends of the Earth

George Osborne makes a visit to the Prysmian Group factory in the constituency of Eastleigh on February 13, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Simon Bullock is senior campaigner on climate change at Friends of the Earth

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.