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15 November 2012

How will Ed Davey strike back at Osborne?

The Energy Secretary has been undermined and humiliated by the Chancellor's machinations on wind power. He must reassert his authority.

By Rafael Behr

It is not a surprise to learn that some Tory backbenchers don’t like onshore wind turbines. Indeed, any politician in a rural constituency, including Lib Dems in the south west and local councillors all over and from all parties, will testify to the fact that nothing packs a town hall with irate constituents like a meeting about a planned windmill.

One such MP recently suggested to me that this passion owed more to people’s sense of disempowerment than to objections to the principle of renewable energy. The feeling runs high that forces mustered elsewhere, not from the local community, uninterested in local concerns, were launching a kind of metropolitan colonisation of the landscape.  Nonetheless, that anger has been effectively mobilised and channelled by people who also happen not to think that climate change is a problem – or at the very least, not a problem to which public investment in renewable energy in the form of onshore wind power is a solution.

It is clear from recent events that such a view has a strong hold on the parliamentary Conservative party. It would also appear to be discreetly encouraged by George Osborne. I reported some weeks ago that the Chancellor is, in private, scathing about environmental regulations seeing them as a tedious impediment to business and a brake on growth. He is said to be quite dismissive of the Climate Change Act, which commits Britain to reduce its carbon emissions. He is, however, stuck with it.

That hasn’t stopped him apparently nurturing the feeling among Tory backbenchers that the environmentalists’ windmill fetish is a legitimate target for attack, regardless of what official coalition policy might have to say on the matter.

Partly, I suspect, this is driven by a recognition that the restive right wing of the Conservative party needs feeding if it is not to start committing acts of dangerous sabotage against the whole Cameron-Osborne project, and green policies make a tender and tasty-looking sacrificial lamb. Osborne is often said to be preoccupied by the strategic threat from Ukip and anti-turbinery is just the kind of protest issue that fires up the Faragists. It is also remarkable how Tory backbench anti-greenery is coloured with spite towards the Lib Dems who see themselves as worthy stewards of environmentalism in government.

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Besides, opinion polls show the public are not terribly interested in environmental policy. Focus groups reveal something closer to actual hostility. Hard-pressed voters associate green issues with middle class affectation – shopping for over-priced organic vegetables in exclusive farmers’ markets etc. As a diligent student of the polls, Osborne will have concluded that he can safely ditch his party’s eco-credentials. This rather ignores the fact that one of the few things people knew David Cameron claimed to believe in before the election was the sanctity of the environment. Regardless of whether they share that belief, voters will still see its cavalier abandonment as a sign of unprincipled flakiness. But, as I wrote in my column this week in relation to welfare cuts, the Tory high command has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to judging what will harm their brand – even when they appear to have built their entire political project on image management.

The news in recent days – the revelation that the Tories’ campaign manager in the Corby by-election appeared to be freelance pimping for a potential anti-turbine candidate – has brought into the open the extent to which Conservative policy on this issue is being discreetly set in deference to the Quixotic* tendency.

It also raises the question of what Ed Davey, the Lib Dem Secretary of State for Climate Change, plans to do about it. Immediately after the last cabinet reshuffle, the Lib Dems alleged that the promotion of John Hayes (Minister of State for Energy) and Owen Paterson (Secretary of State at DEFRA) were hostile acts orchestrated by Osborne to undermine Davey. That view has now been pretty comprehensively confirmed.

That leaves the credibility of Davey in serious doubt. What authority does he have as a cabinet minister when the Chancellor is known to be manoeuvring around him. The Lib Dems don’t have enough heavyweight cabinet figures or emblematic policy issues to let one just slip away into impotence and ridicule. Davey will surely have to strike back somehow and reassert his authority. 

*Tilting at windmills. (Sorry.)

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