Why there'll be no U-turn from Clegg on green taxes

The Deputy PM vowed in his conference speech that the Lib Dems "will keep this government green" - and he meant it.

ConservativeHome thinks the Lib Dems are going to cave in to the Prime Minister after his rash policy-on-the-hoof announcement at PMQs yesterday – and start taking the green costs out of energy bills.

To quote the Tory blogger Mark Wallace, "they [the Lib Dems] know their position as the people preventing energy bills from being cut will not be tenable for long."

I think Mr Wallace is wrong.

Firstly, he forgets that this isn’t 2010 or even 2011. We’ve now crossed the rubicon and the differentiation strategy, so long promised, is in full swing. Hence the reversal on secret courts, clarification on Free Schools, the lists of Tory 'initiatives' we’ve stopped (the 'racist vans' campaign being the latest). That process is going to accelerate and the chance to expose the paucity of thinking from the Tories on energy is too good to miss. When David Cameron encouraged everyone to hug a husky, I had no idea he was actually outlining his whole energy policy.

Secondly, 75% of folk don’t blame green taxes for their energy bills. I suspect the 25% of people who do already vote Tory or have fled to UKIP. This doesn’t seem like much of a Lib Dem vote winner, so the politics don’t work. And thirdly, its a bad idea anyway. Around half the money raised in green energy taxes goes on schemes to help those in fuel poverty to minimise waste. I’d have said that making the poorest in society choose between heating or eating was a rather more "untenable policy position".

But that’s not really why the Lib Dems won’t be rolling over to get the Prime Minister out of a hole. It’s because just 36 days ago, Lib Dem conference was told:

"And if there’s one area where we’ve had to put our foot down more than any other, have a guess. Yep, the environment.

"It’s an endless battle; we’ve had to fight tooth and nail; it was the same just this week with the decision to introduce a small levy to help Britain radically cut down on plastic bags.

"They wanted to scrap Natural England, hold back green energy. They even wanted geography teachers to stop teaching children about how we can tackle climate change. No, no and no – the Liberal Democrats will keep this government green."

Nick Clegg’s words. No U-turning from there.

Mr Cameron, it might be time to pull on an extra hoodie. It’s the only energy policy you’ve got left.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Nick Clegg speaks at the UN General Assembly on 27 September 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: a test of competence as well as compassion

George Osborne's chickens may be coming home to roost.

The debate will be political and polarized, as you’d expect, when the Chancellor sets out the results of the Spending Review tomorrow and how his £20bn of savings will be realised. However my suspicion is that while many followers of the Westminster's circus are debating what it all means for compassionate or compassionless conservatism, the public will be more interested in a more straightforward question: one of competence. 

Strip away the hyperbole and the election in May was won on an assessment of which party was the more competent to govern. A huge part of the public’s judgment in this regard was to trust the track record of the Conservatives in balancing the books and that the £20bn in departmental savings earmarked was a reasonable and responsible ambition. 

This is the question in point because what the public did not endorse explicitly was significant change in the size and role of the state. The argument was made and won for a budget surplus, not necessarily for its consequences. As Paul Johnson of the IFS has been at pains to say after every recent budget.

We should acknowledge that one of the reasons the Chancellor does have the public’s confidence is that the cuts to public services so far have not been as damaging as many opponents predicted. The NHS is under-strain, but has not broken. Hard pushed local government leaders have managed to shield social care from the worst of the changes, and the majority of police officers lost were in the back-office not on the beat. So when pollsters ask the public whether they have noticed the effects of austerity, most say they haven't. 

Understanding what the implications are of further large reductions in areas in the firing line such as police forces or local government is hard to do. So the government has told the public "trust us". Now we are going to find out how well that trust was placed. The point is this though - if the public haven't yet felt the full affects of a smaller state they may not be so tolerant it if they do. That brings us to the Chancellor’s real test. The easy cuts have surely been made, after the long years of spending increases prior to 2010 you would expect the system to be able to tighten its belt. But with five years of austerity under that belt there is a risk that the additional cuts could push services too far. 

The public were told that £20bn of saving could be achieved without the kind of pain that will be felt if social care for the elderly really starts to fall over, if police officers become significantly more scarce, or if the NHS does need much more than the promised £8bn (as many believe it will). On this point they have trusted the Chancellor to understand the implications of what he is promising. So if the policy choices in the Spending Review turn out to show that he did not, it will be the Government's competence as much as its compassion that will concern the public.


Steve O'Neill was deputy head of policy for the Liberal Democrats until the election.