You know something has gone wrong when Jacob Rees-Mogg is suddenly the voice of pragmatic eco-conscious reason.
Britain is facing an energy crisis this winter. This morning virtually all the front pages are leading with dire warnings from the National Grid that the country could face blackouts in a few months if the weather gets too cold and the supply shortage in Europe means we can’t import gas. Admittedly this is very much a worst-case scenario, but for the first time since the 1970s there is a real chance of households being cut off, for up to three hours at a time.
You might expect the government to have something to say about how we can avert this catastrophe. Energy rationing is extreme, but what about something more light-touch, offering the British public some sensible suggestions of how to conserve energy – and money – this winter? And, indeed, a plan for a £15 million public information campaign to do just that was signed off by Rees-Mogg, the Business Secretary, only to be comprehensively vetoed by the Prime Minister. Why? Because it would be “too interventionist”.
It is hard to know where to start with this bizarre myopia. Firstly, it seems Liz Truss does not want to save the Treasury money. Today’s prize for political innumeracy goes to the Conservative MP Maria Caulfield, who noted the price tag and tweeted “The PM is right to question if this is the best use of tax payers money”. For context, £15 million is less than one four-thousandth of the estimated bill to taxpayers for the government’s energy prize freeze. It would only take fractional household energy savings for the information campaign to pay for itself many times over. (For extra context, the government has signed off £930 million to publicly promote its policies in the run-up to the next election. That’s more than 60 times as much as the energy reduction information plan, for people who struggle with maths as much as Caulfield seems to.)
Politically, an advice campaign would make sense too. Here is a policy that would help struggling households to save money. The suggestions themselves might seem obvious (the three big ones Rees-Mogg’s team settled on were lowering boiler temperature, switching off radiators in empty rooms and turning off heating when people go out), but it is estimated they could save households £300 a year.
And that’s before we get to the patriotic angle, invoking the “Blitz spirit” that proved so effective during the pandemic and asking the public to “do their bit” to stick it to Vladimir Putin, whose invasion of Ukraine is behind the energy crisis. According to the energy journalist Simon Evans, advising people to turn down boiler flow rates (which does not affect temperature) would have a greater impact on UK energy security than the move to start fracking again. It could also start right now.
This is not a UK-specific challenge, but other governments are stepping up where ours is floundering. EU member states agreed in July to reduce gas demand by 15 per cent this winter. A whole range of initiatives are underway in Europe: limits on heating and air-conditioning, lowering the temperature of swimming pools, dimming the lights on public monuments such as the Brandenburg Gate and the Eiffel Tower. The costs of the UK taking similar action would be zero, and it would send a powerful signal – to the public and to Russia – of how serious Britain is about opposing Putin. That’s something Liz Truss used to purport to care about when she was foreign secretary.
If you’re perplexed by her refusal, you are not alone. I discussed the story last night on the BBC review of the newspaper front pages with Lord Digby Jones, an ardent Brexiteer; neither of us could come up with a single political or economic reason for Truss to reject this plan. I’ve been texting friends in the Conservative Party today for answers. No one has any. The Times reports that even a source within the government thinks the decision is “stupid” and believes a public information campaign would be a “no-brainer”. The argument that such a policy would be “interventionist” makes little sense, given the proposal was never to tell people what to do but rather give them the information to make smarter choices for themselves and for the country. That kind of advice is no more “nanny statism” than a doctor advising some light stretching before exercise to avoid getting injured.
Even the Truss team’s obsession with free-market ideology doesn’t explain it. If you believe behaviour should be influenced by price signals alone, the rising cost of energy should encourage people to reduce usage. Except Truss has distorted the market by capping energy prices (albeit at almost double what they were last year). In free market terms, this freeze actually incentivises people who can afford it to use more energy, because the price mechanism isn’t working properly. Truss has already intervened in the market this winter. In the midst of a supply crisis, she is stoking demand while rejecting a mild nudge to encourage energy efficiency on misplaced ideological grounds.
Finally, it seems inevitable that this will be yet another area where our Prime Minister is forced into an embarrassing U-turn. It is highly probable UK energy use will have to be reduced this winter, if not by way of voluntary action then in the form of blackouts. The situation could be truly calamitous: already, the Guardian is warning of the risk to people with disabilities and children who need medical treatment if the power goes out. People could die. Truss has backed herself into a corner for which there is no justification, and thus exposed her government to blame if and when outages do occur. And for what? To look more hard-line and dogmatic than Jacob Rees-Mogg?