No. 10 refuses to deny that subsidy for nuclear power has broken Coalition Agreement

The PM's spokesman merely says that the agreement on a new nuclear power station is "a very important announcement".

The Coalition Agreement was unambiguous on the question of public subsidy for new nuclear power stations: there would be none. It stated:

Liberal Democrats have long opposed any new nuclear construction. Conservatives, by contrast, are committed to allowing the replacement of existing nuclear power stations provided that they are subject to the normal planning process for major projects (under a new National Planning Statement), and also provided that they receive no public subsidy.

But this pledge is flatly contradicted by today's deal on a new plant in Hinkley, which guarantees the French-owned EDF and Chinese state investors a strike price of £92.50 per MegaWatt Hour, nearly twice the current market rate for wholesale energy, over a 35-year period.

When I put this point to the Prime Minister's spokesman at this morning's Lobby briefing, he replied:

Today is a very important announcement, it's around, as he [David Cameron] described it, long-term planning for our economy, for energy security, actually for jobs as well, there are 25,000 jobs associated with today's announcement, and we need this broad energy market and that's why today's announcement is a very important one.

I replied that this was an explantion of why the investment was needed, not of why the position had changed, and he said:

I actually think that the position around the need for energy security, the need for more competition in the market, that has been the government's policy and you're seeing a very important announcement today in regard to that.

So No. 10 is refusing that deny that the coalition has broken its 2010 pledge on public subsidy, simply because it cannot credibly do so. Should wholesale prices fall or rise at a slower rate than expected, it is the public who will pick up the tab in the form of higher bills (which are expected to rise by around £8 as a result of today's agreement) or higher taxes.

But if it is remarkable that the Tories, who dismiss a two-year energy price freeze as "socialism", are willing to guarantee foreign state-owned companies prices for 35 years, it is even more remarkable that the Lib Dems have gone from opposing any new nuclear power stations to supporting a multibillion subsidy for them.

Energy Secretary Ed Davey and David Cameron examine site plans for Hinkly C nuclear power station at Hinkley Point. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Something is missing from the Brexit debate

Inside Westminster, few seem to have noticed or care about the biggest question mark in the Brexit talks. 

What do we know about the government’s Brexit strategy that we didn’t before? Not much, to be honest.

Theresa May has now said explicitly what her red lines on European law and free movement of labour said implicitly: that Britain is leaving the single market. She hasn’t ruled out continuing payments from Britain to Brussels, but she has said that they won’t be “vast”. (Much of the detail of Britain’s final arrangement is going to depend on what exactly “vast” means.)  We know that security co-operation will, as expected, continue after Brexit.

What is new? It’s Theresa May’s threat to the EU27 that Britain will walk away from a bad deal and exit without one that dominates the British newspapers.

“It's May Way or the Highway” quips City AM“No deal is better than a bad deal” is the Telegraph’s splash, “Give us a deal… or we walk” is the Mirror’s. The Guardian opts for “May’s Brexit threat to Europe”,  and “May to EU: give us fair deal or you’ll be crushed” is the Times’ splash.

The Mail decides to turn the jingoism up to 11 with “Steel of the new Iron Lady” and a cartoon of Theresa May on the white cliffs of Dover stamping on an EU flag. No, really.  The FT goes for the more sedate approach: “May eases Brexit fears but warns UK will walk away from 'bad deal’” is their splash.

There’s a lot to unpack here. The government is coming under fire for David Davis’ remark that even if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal, we will leave anyway. But as far as the Article 50 process is concerned, that is how it works. You either take the deal that emerges from the Article 50 process or have a disorderly exit. There is no process within exiting the European Union for a do-over.  

The government’s threat to Brussels makes sense from a negotiating perspective. It helps the United Kingdom get a better deal if the EU is convinced that the government is willing to suffer damage if the deal isn’t to its liking. But the risk is that the damage is seen as so asymmetric – and while the direct risk for the EU27 is bad, the knock-on effects for the UK are worse – that the threat looks like a bad bluff. Although European leaders have welcomed the greater clarity, Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator, has reiterated that their order of priority is to settle the terms of divorce first, agree a transition and move to a wider deal after that, rather than the trade deal with a phased transition that May favours.

That the frontpage of the Irish edition of the Daily Mail says “May is wrong, any deal is better than no deal” should give you an idea of how far the “do what I want or I shoot myself” approach is going to take the UK with the EU27. Even a centre-right newspaper in Britain's closest ally isn't buying that Britain will really walk away from a bad deal. 

Speaking of the Irish papers, there’s a big element to yesterday’s speech that has eluded the British ones: May’s de facto abandonment of the customs union and what that means for the border between the North and the South. “May’s speech indicates Border customs controls likely to return” is the Irish Times’ splash, “Brexit open border plan “an illusion”” is the Irish Independent’s, while “Fears for jobs as ‘hard Brexit’ looms” is the Irish Examiner’s.

There is widespread agreement in Westminster, on both sides of the Irish border and in the European Union that no-one wants a return to the borders of the past. The appetite to find a solution is high on all sides. But as one diplomat reflected to me recently, just because everyone wants to find a solution, doesn’t mean there is one to be found. 

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