One of the Tories' own backbenchers has broken ranks to spell out what has been obvious for some time: the party still does not have a clear energy policy
Less than two months from the election, the Conservative party lacks a clear energy policy and has failed to deliver "much success" decarbonising the UK's energy infrastructure during its time in office.
Who says? Labour's Caroline Flint taking a break from explaining how a price "freeze" and "cap" are effectively synonymous to launch her latest attack on the Tories? Green NGOs that have never forgiven David Cameron for failing to live up to his early promise as an environmentally conscious moderniser? No, that is the measured conclusion of Conservative MP and member of the energy and climate change select committee Phillip Lee.
According to a report earlier this month from respected trade magazine Utility Week, Lee told a pre-election debate at the Energy Institute that he was deeply unconvinced by what passed for Conservative energy policy. He admitted that the party had relegated energy policy to a "second fiddle" issue in the election campaign and is still yet to set out an official position on a host of energy and climate issues.
He also said he did not think "we've done particularly well" with the government's flagship electricity market reforms, arguing that the wide-ranging measures would struggle to meet their "admirable" goals because they were trying to operate on "too many fronts".
Anyone looking for a further example of quite how partisan parts of the media have become in the run-up to a knife-edge election (although I have no idea why anyone would need any more examples of media bias given the events of recent weeks) should simply imagine the uproar that would have resulted if an influential Labour MP had publicly declared he had no idea what the party's energy policy was and implied that those bits he was aware of were not up to scratch.
The fact is Lee's comments were worthy of a much wider audience, not because they were a pre-election "gaffe" or evidence of a backbench "rebellion", but because they were entirely justified. With polling day fast approaching the Conservatives do not have anything approximating a coherent and comprehensive energy policy, and while the manifesto may yet surprise everyone there have been no leaks to suggest exciting developments are in the pipeline. On an issue that impacts on living standards, health, national security and climate security, the party that according to several recent polls is likely to have first go at forming a government on 8 May is strangely silent.
However, that is not to say we are completely blind to the energy and climate policies that will feature in the Conservative manifesto.
We know David Cameron wants to block the development of onshore wind farms that have not yet secured planning permission, although we do not yet know whether he intends to achieve this goal through planning reforms or subsidy changes, nor whether the reforms will affect devolved administrations such as Scotland that are much keener on onshore turbines.
We know several influential Conservatives are concerned about the deployment of solar arrays on agricultural land. But we do not know if they will ban such developments, nor how they plan to accelerate the roll-out of rooftop solar arrays that they claim to favour.
We know Cameron wants offshore wind, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage plants to play an increasing role in the energy mix and pick up the slack created by blocking onshore wind developments. But to date there has been scant detail on how a Conservative government would boost any of these sectors, what level of funding will be made available to support them post-2020 and how Tory ministers would respond to charges that these technologies are more expensive than onshore wind, solar power and energy-efficiency programmes.
We know Cameron wants to make the UK the most energy-efficient country in Europe. But we also know he diluted the government's flagship energy-efficiency programme, oversaw a faltering Green Deal financing initiative and launched a capacity market that allowed little space for innovative demand response schemes. We have no idea what a Conservative government would do to tackle fuel poverty and energy inefficiency, beyond an assumption it would continue with a Green Deal and ECO scheme that many critics regard as badly flawed.
Most importantly, we know the prime minister believes climate change is one of the biggest threats the UK faces and is publicly committed to working with other parties to set new carbon targets, agree an ambitious international climate treaty and phase out unabated coal. But we do not know what kind of targets he wants to set, when he plans to phase out the use of unabated coal nor how he plans to marry this decarbonised vision with his love of shale gas projects and desire to dish out tax breaks to North Sea oil and gas firms. We are also in the dark as to how Cameron plans to keep in check Tory colleagues (and potential UKIP allies) who remain resolutely opposed to any and all decarbonisation policies.
In fairness to Conservative Central Office, the energy policies offered by Labour, the Lib Dems, UKIP, Greens and SNP all have areas where clarity is similarly lacking. Equally, as all parties struggle to adapt to the age of multi-party politics we do not know how negotiable those policies that have been announced are. For example, will the Lib Dems make continued support for onshore wind farms and the adoption of a decarbonisation target a condition of a second Con-Lib pact, or would these green proposals go the way of tuition fees? Would UKIP make scrapping the Climate Change Act central to any confidence and supply agreement with a minority Tory government? Could Labour and the SNP cooperate on phasing out unabated coal power even if neither wants a full coalition?
But if all of the parties face legitimate questions about their energy policies, it is only the Conservative party that is currently offering an energy strategy that is as opaque as Grant Shapps' CV. Meanwhile, all of the evidence suggests Chancellor George Osborne is more likely to use the last budget address of the parliament to heap praise on Gordon Brown than he is to sketch out a comprehensive energy policy for the next five years.
Regardless of your political predilections, this policy black hole matters and urgently needs addressing in the Conservative manifesto.
Whatever happens in May (and perhaps again in September) the next government faces a host of critical energy and environment issues. In a matter of months businesses and investors will simply have to know what is going to happen to decarbonisation policies post-2020, the energy efficiency sector needs reassurances that the Energy Company Obligation is not going to be allowed to fall off another cliff, other governments need to know what role the UK intends to play at the Paris Summit, and we all need to know precisely how the next government plans to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy. For good measure, green campaigners and Tory MPs are going to want to know what is happening with Heathrow as well. A functioning democracy should discuss each of these issues (and many more) in detail before the election, not after it.
All of the parties are wrestling with the challenge presented by the carbon bubble and the contradictions inherent in simultaneously pursuing high and low-carbon infrastructure. But they have an obligation to tackle those contradictions in front of the electorate with clear and coherent policies that at least attempt to live up their leaders' bold words on the non-negotiable need to decarbonise. As Phillip Lee's criticism implies, the Conservative party is currently struggling to honour that obligation. The upcoming manifesto offers a last chance for the party to present the credible energy policy that is currently notable by its absence. Let's hope they seize it.
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