Conservative MP and former climate change minister Greg Barker. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian.
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Greg Barker: Tories must not "dance off to the right"

Conservative MP and former climate change minister says his party must "relentlessly" pursue modernisation. 

For this week's Conservative conference edition of the New Statesman, I interviewed Greg Barker, Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle, former climate change minister (he accompanied David Cameron to the Arctic Circle in 2006) and ultra-moderniser. You can read the piece in full here, but here are some of the highlights. 

Tories must not "dance off to right" and must "relentlessly" pursue modernisation

Confronted by the threat of Ukip, Barker warned that the Tories must occupy "the centre ground of British politics, rather than dancing off to the right" and that they must "relentlessy" pursue modernisation. 

He told me: "I worry that there are people who would like to drop the modernisation agenda and that want to take us closer to a Ukip set of policies. But I think you have to be relentlessly pursuing and making the case of why we should be forward looking, not backward looking, of why the future of the Conservative Party as an election-winning machine, as well as in terms of the best for the electorate, depends on us occupying the centre ground of British politics, rather than dancing off to the right

"However real the immediate threat may be from Ukip, what voters respect in the long-term is authenticity in their political parties and I think we are authentically centre-right, best at offering a future which is driven by an optimistic outlook on the UK’s potential, rather than trying to drag us back to the 1950s."

Of Douglas Carswell's defection, he said: "I thought it was treacherous. If he’s happier in Ukip, well that’s the best place for him."

Lib Dem Ed Davey is "a bit right-wing for me"

Declaring himself to be "unashamedly pro-alition", Barker told me that the partnership with the Lib Dems had been "a remarkable success". 

He said that he had had "a very good relationship" with Energy Secretary Ed Davey, adding in a remark that will do the Lib Dem no favours:  he is "a bit right-wing for me". "He’s rather laissez-faire. I would favour slightly more radical market interventions. The same is probably true of Chris Huhne [Davey’s predecessor as energy secretary]."

Tories "musn't obsess about Europe"

In response to calls from some Tory MPs for David Cameron to declare his willingess to campaign for EU withdrawal, Barker told me that the party "musn't obsess about Europe" and urged recalcitrant backbenchers to "rally round David, stop obsessing about every dot and comma in our negotiating position and actually give him the space and time to get the deal for Britain". 

He added: "I am not one of those politicians who lies awake in the middle of the night worrying about Brussels. The way that David Cameron has handled Europe is superlative. For a Tory prime minister to try and navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of different wings on the Tory Party on this a very, very difficult task, and I think he’s done it extraordinarily well. Now, it needs people to bite their lips, give him space, get behind him, and give him that negotiating space."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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What's going on in Northern Ireland?

Everything you need to know about why Northern Ireland is heading for an early election - and how it all works. 

Northern Irish voters will elect a new government, just seven months after the last election. Here’s what you need to know.

It all starts with something called the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), a scheme designed to encourage businesses to switch to renewable sources of heating, by paying them to do so. But the plan had two flaws. Firstly, there was no upper limit to how much you could receive under the scheme and secondly there was no requirement that the new heaters replace the old.

That led to businesses installing biomass boilers to heat rooms that had previously not been heated, including storage rooms and in some cases, empty sheds.

 The cost of the scheme has now run way over budget, and although the door has been closed to new entrants, existing participants in the scheme will continue collecting money for the next 20 years, with the expected bill for the Northern Irish assembly expected to reach £1bn.  

The row is politically contentious because Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, was head of the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) when the scheme was rolled out, putting her at the heart of the row. Though there is no suggestion that she personally enriched herself or her allies, there are questions about how DETI signed off the scheme without any safeguards and why it took so long for the testimony of whistleblowers to be acted on.

The opposition parties have called for a full inquiry and for Foster to step down while that inquiry takes place, something which she has refused to do. What happened instead is that the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned his post, he said as a result of frustration with the DUP’s instrangience about the scheme.

Under the rules of the devolved assembly (of which, more below), the executive – the ministers tasked with running the government day-to-day must be compromised of politicians drawn from the parties that finish first and second in the vote, otherwise the administration is dissolved.  McGuinesss’ Sinn Fein finished second and their refusal to continue participating in the executive while Foster remains in place automatically triggers fresh elections.

Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote (STV) to elect members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). Under STV, multiple MLAs are elected from a single constituency, to more accurately reflect the votes of the people who live there and, crucially, to prevent a repeat of the pattern of devolved rule under first-past-the-post, when prolonged one-party rule by the Unionist and Protestant majority contributed to a sense of political alienation among the Catholic minority.

Elections are contested across 18 seats, with five MPs elected to every seat. To further ensure that no part of the community is unrepresented in the running of the devolved assembly, the executive, too, is put together with a form of proportional representation. Not only does the executive require a majority in the legislature to pass its business, under a system of “mandatory coalition”, posts on the executive are allocated under the D’Hondt system of proportional representation, with posts on the executive allocated according to how well parties do, with the first party getting first pick, and so on until it comes back to the first party until all the posts are filled.

Although the parties which finish third and lower can opt out of taking their seats on the executive and instead oppose the government, if the first and second party don’t participate in the coalition, there is no government.

As it is highly unlikely that the DUP and Sinn Fein will not occupy the first and second places when the election is over, it is equally unlikely that a second election will do anything other than prolong the chaos and disunity at Stormont. 

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