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21 October

It’s fitting that a vote on fracking destroyed Liz Truss’s government

It sums up the self-harm of prioritising free-market principles above all else.

By India Bourke

How appropriate that, of the many issues that Liz Truss’s government has misguidedly championed, it is fracking that caused her premiership to finally implode. Shale gas drilling in the UK would not just be a threat to local health and safety; it would imperil the climate while doing next to nothing to improve our struggling economy. In fact no policy could better sum up the self-harm inflicted when free-market principles are placed above all else.

Fracking would neither secure energy supply nor lower bills because of unfavourable geology. Even some industry insiders admit it. The International Energy Agency has warned that no new reserves of oil or gas must be exploited if climate change is to be stemmed. And environmental groups, including an impressive grassroots movement, have raised the profile of the water, air and noise pollution that existing sites around the world have contributed to. Ninety-four Conservative-held seats could be affected if fracking were to spread in the UK, and so naturally there is scepticism within party. Yet still, Truss pushed forward with removing the ban on new sites being developed – reversing a 2019 manifesto promise in the process – which would benefit those who want to exploit as much fossil fuels as possible, regardless of the external costs.

That dangerous position has torn the government apart. Liz Truss resigned yesterday, 20 October, the day after a chaotic parliamentary vote on a Labour motion calling for MPs to get a say on the reversal of the fracking ban. The motion was defeated by 326 votes to 230, but only after the government turned it into a confidence vote in Truss’s administration.

That dozens of Tory MPs rebelled anyway means it is now clearer than ever that fracking has no future in Britain. Thirty-seven Tory MPs either abstained or voted with Labour. These included Kwasi Kwarteng, who was chancellor until last week and was previously the energy secretary, Alok Sharma, the Cop26 president, and Chris Skidmore, who is chairing an investigation of how the target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions can be best achieved. Skidmore tweeted that “for the sake of our environment and climate, I cannot personally vote tonight to support fracking and undermine the pledges I made at the 2019 general election”.

The majority of Tory MPs who spoke in the debate preceding the vote used their time to heavily qualify their opposition to the motion. They didn’t want to throw away their support for their party on an issue they knew their local communities would veto anyway, some said. Others expressed anger at Labour for putting forward a vote which they knew Tory MPs could not support without defying their leadership. “A Conservative government will always have my confidence, but their leadership today has severely tested my trust,” warned Ruth Edwards, MP for Rushcliffe.

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Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Business and Energy Secretary, promised this week that communities would have a veto on fracking in their area, but as numerous Labour MPs were quick to point out, there is little detail about how such local consent would be determined. Plus it is hard to trust a government that has U-turned on so much in so little time, including a manifesto pledge.

“Bandit capitalism” was how Labour’s Rebecca Long Bailey summed up the “government’s whole approach to the energy system”. And with the government’s legitimacy crumbling thanks to a free-market policy with no real justification, it’s no wonder it is now firmly in the dock.

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[See also: Was Liz Truss’s mini-Budget the point of no return?]

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