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20 July 2016updated 14 Jan 2018 2:22pm

Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Greg Clark as Business Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.

By India Bourke

A PhD in economics and a career in management consultancy would suggest that the new Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy has a flare for maths. Yet when it comes to policy, Greg Clark’s record doesn’t always add up. 

A renowned Tory moderniser, Clark’s appointment to head the new department (born out of watering down BIS, and dismantling DECC) has been greeted with optimism from the business community and green sector alike. He “gets climate change”, said Ruth Davis from the E3G energy policy think tank.

As a former policy director, he helped found and champion David Cameron’s Big Society initiative. He has since been through a succession of frontbench roles, consistently voted in favour of gay marriage, helped devolve power to cities, and made a splash by arguing that Polly Toynbee, not Winston Churchill, should set the Conservative agenda.

Yet can this Middlesbrough-born son of a milkman succeed in growing a green economy where his Big Society agenda appears to have so markedly failed?

The greatest challenge his new, enlarged, and hopefully more empowered, department faces is to grow UK industry at the same time as urgently reducing our emissions. Luckily this is something that Clark also perceives to be one of the country’s greatest opportunities. He has criticised those who challenge action on climate change, shown a readiness to plan for the worst when it comes to interpreting climate science, and provided an ambitious vision for Britain’s green economy: “Britain could be the Saudi Arabia of marine energy”, he said in 2009.

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Yet while his words have promoted wave-power, his actions have tended to change like the tide. His reputation for devolving power to local governments was seriously dented last year, when it was announced that Clark – then the Communities & Local Government Secretary – not the local council, would get the final say over permission to frack in Lancashire. Other concerning examples of this “do as I say, not as I do” tendency include voting to lower taxes on fuel and for cuts to renewable subsidies. 

He must therefore work fast to ensure that his reputation for blue sky thinking is more than a lot of hot air. Barry Gardiner, Labour’s shadow energy secretary, has suggested that accelerating energy efficiency, developing Carbon Capture Storage and bringing forward the government’s promised Carbon Plan, would all be good places to start.

The rise of Clark and his new department is likely to be linked to the demise of the Department for Energy and Climate Change  and the loss of climate change from a cabinet nameplate. Yet if he can steer new policy in the right direction, towards making environmental costs integral to industry rather than an afterthought, he might yet make this chequered inheritance his greatest strength.

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