The Lib Dems are on the ropes, but a second coalition remains a distinct possibility - will the party fight even harder for its green goals this time around?
One of the more intriguing political hypotheticals of the past five years is what would have happened to the coalition and its various green policies had Chris Huhne accepted the ban that was coming his way on the fateful night the speed camera caught him. The media focus may have been on the personal drama that characterised the Energy and Climate Change Secretary's fall from grace, but what is rarely noted is the impact the resulting enforced reshuffle had on the tenor of coalition negotiations.
Huhne was something of a political bruiser, ferociously intelligent and not afraid to let people know that he knew it. During a relatively short stint at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), Huhne clashed with Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne at the Cabinet Table over the AV referendum, and battled with the Treasury over its carbon targets and the Green Investment Bank. Somehow, the detail of these rows found their way into the papers.
Huhne's enforced departure and his replacement with Ed Davey resulted in a slightly more conciliatory approach towards both the Treasury and the Lib Dem leadership. Davey has recently revealed he fought tooth and nail with the Conservatives over a whole host of green policy issues and there is no doubt he enjoyed some notable successes, but there was rarely the sense that a resignation could be on the cards if the Lib Dems failed to get their way, as there sometimes was with Huhne. The criticism of Tory negotiating tactics on energy and environment policy that did emerge from Lib Dem sources tended to be less frequent and more nuanced than had been the case under Huhne - until the last few months at least.
It is worth recalling this shift in style because the election campaign has seen a notable and necessary shift back towards what we might refer to as the Huhne doctrine on coalition, as Davey and colleagues such as Danny Alexander lifted the lid on some of the battles they had with their Tory counterparts. The key question for green-minded voters as they assess a Lib Dem manifesto that on paper is arguably the most impressive of the three main parties is which approach to coalition is the more effective and which will hold sway should the election as expected deliver a hung parliament?
Or to put it another way, how much are the Lib Dems willing to compromise to retain their ministerial cars? Where are the red lines on green policy?
Understandably, the Lib Dems are not about to tell anyone which of their policies are sacrosanct in any coalition negotiations. In part this is because it is extremely bad practice to let people know what you will settle for ahead of any negotiations, and in part because the party is understandably focusing all its attention right now on avoiding the electoral wipeout that would make any talk of coalition moot.
But there are signs the party is already thinking about how it will prioritise its demands should it find itself in a position to determine who forms the next government. The decision to put five priorities on the front page of its manifesto, including its high profile Five Green Laws, sets out a clear template for negotiations. Similarly, the decision to brand its mix of pragmatic and genuinely ambitious environmental proposals as Five Green Laws looks like an opening gambit that would allow the party to lose parts of its green agenda in any negotiations and still put forward a distinctive green legislative programme it would find it easy to take credit for.
For example, it is easy to envisage a scenario where Lib Dems might agree to abstain on airport expansion in return for a decarbonisation target and a continuation of support for wind energy. Similarly, you can see how the Green Laws would help the Lib Dems demand much of the credit for clean energy or biodiversity policies that Labour and the Tories actually want to deliver too.
There are too many variables to predict whether such negotiations will go ahead or how they might pan out, including the question as to whether Nick Clegg can take part in talks if he is no longer an MP.
But one thing is clear, when it comes to energy and the environment policies, the Lib Dems would find negotiations far easier with Labour (and the SNP) than with their current coalition partners. Personality clashes, disagreements over wider economic policies, and electoral maths, may all serve to scupper such talks, but there is clear overlap between the two parties on power sector decarbonisation, energy efficiency, green industrial policy, and nature protection. A deal looks plausible and would result in plenty of policies that green businesses would like to see.
What is equally clear is that a continuation of the current coalition would require much more challenging, but not necessarily insurmountable, energy and environment policy negotiations. Davey and Osborne would once again be diametrically opposed on crucial issues such as the pace of decarbonisation and the role of wind energy, not to mention the issues that are (disgracefully) not getting an airing in this election, such as where the next wave of carbon targets should be set and how much money should be made available post 2020 for clean energy.
Which brings us back to the initial question, would the Lib Dems, potentially bruised from seeing their numbers slashed, make key components of their green agenda part of the price tag for a second coalition? Would the party be willing to walk away from government if the Tories refuse to drop their opposition to new wind farms? And if a new coalition agreement can be reached, would an older and wiser Lib Dem leadership team dig their heels in even harder over upcoming rows around the next wave of carbon targets and green policies for the post-2020 period?
Green business executives who believe the party would answer in the affirmative to these questions can easily construct a compelling case for voting for the Lib Dems, confident in the knowledge they would either work with Labour to boost the green economy or make ambitious green policies a price of doing business with a Conservative Party that has offered decidedly mixed signals towards green firms.
Those who feel the coalition's green achievements, such as the Green Investment Bank and increased investment in renewable energy, have been too readily offset by a Lib Dem failure to secure greater concessions from the Conservatives, who feel the party should have demonstrated a greater willingness to make certain green policies non-negotiable, and who subscribe to the view that Clegg's tuition fees betrayal means he can never be trusted again, may be sceptical that this time around will be any different.
The reality is the Lib Dems were crucial to many of the coalition's more admirable green achievements, but could and should still have fought harder and louder to deliver yet more progress. That said, with the Conservatives showing little willingness to revive their explicitly green messaging of 2010, there is a sense that in a few months' time the Lib Dems could be regarded like the out of form batsman who is dropped only to see their stock rise as their former team-mates put in a woeful performance.
It is notable that yesterday the UK's two leading business titles, the Financial Times and the Economist, both endorsed the continuation of a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, arguing that while the Tories edge out Labour when it comes to economic credibility, the Lib Dems are still needed to temper some of the more reckless instincts of the Conservative right. Many green business leaders will identify with that analysis and feel justified in backing Lib Dem candidates in the seats where they remain competitive. However, they may also wonder what it might be like to see a government elected where, rather than having to defend the green economy from ministerial detractors, the new cabinet, regardless of how many parties are at the table, has a mandate to deliver a truly ambitious low carbon vision.
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