The House of Lords is threatening to disrupt the government's energy policy proposals, and the Conservatives have only themselves to blame
Every functioning, or indeed half-functioning, democracy needs its checks and balances; its mechanisms for forcing a government to think again when it is pursuing strategies that are incoherent, unmandated, or self-defeating. Consequently, the only surprising thing about the imminent battle between the government and the House of Lords over energy and climate policy is that it has taken this long to emerge.
The news over the weekend that Labour and Lib Dem peers are threatening to derail government plans to bring an early end to onshore wind farm subsidies, just as Labour seeks to force a ministerial rethink on carbon capture and storage (CCS) suggests that after six months when the Conservatives have been given a pretty easy ride the political battle over the UK's decarbonisation strategy could be about to heat up.
This latest row is likely to result in yet more policy uncertainty for the wind farm developers and CCS investors affected, but it could also delay or dilute the fallout from policy changes that a study for the Independent today warned will result in UK renewables investment being pushed "off a cliff".
As with the Lords-enforced tax credit u-turn, the government will no doubt be furious about these turbulent peers and their unelected over-reach. Expect Number 10 to use any House of Lords resistance over the Energy Bill as further ammunition for its threatened planned to flood the upper house with Tory peers. But as with the tax credit u-turn, the government only has itself to blame.
The vague and inconsistent nature of the Tory manifesto at the last election not only created massive policy confusion for energy investors, it has also given any peers who wish to tear into the government's energy and climate strategy the opportunity to do so.
Somewhat perversely the initial flashpoint with the Lords will be over one of the few areas where the Conservatives offered a relatively clear signal about their plans: onshore wind farms. The manifesto said the Party would "halt the spread of onshore windfarms" and "end any new public subsidy for them". It may sound clear enough, but in failing to define which subsidies qualify as "new" the government immediately put itself at risk of a challenge when it moved to end existing Renewables Obligation (RO) subsidies for onshore wind farms a year earlier than planned at the start of April 2016.
As a result Labour and Lib Dem peers will feel completely justified in sticking to their guns and voting down the proposals for a second time if the government seeks to put them back in the Energy Bill. Their position is strengthened further by the still remarkable inconsistency the government is showing towards different clean energy sources, which has seen ministers trumpet affordability while blocking the development of the cheapest forms of clean energy. When the government's own impact assessment says the proposed changes to the RO will save consumers 30p a year and logic dictates replacing onshore wind farms with more expensive alternatives will increase the cost of the UK's decarbonisation peers will not only feel they have the right to oppose the government, they will relish doing so. After all, the Conservative manifesto stated clearly that "we will cut emissions as cost-effectively as possible".
With the option of forcing the legislation through by using the Parliament Act not available because the bill started life in the Lords, the government now has to decide whether to seek a compromise or risk seeing its first major piece of energy legislation and a key manifesto pledge thwarted.
Moreover, this could be a sign of things to come. If the Conservative manifesto was too vague on wind energy reforms it was clear on CCS. It praised the previous government's commitment of £1bn of funding and made no mention whatsoever that this investment was at risk. And then the Treasury killed the programme with zero notice.
Consequently, Labour's move to request an National Audit Office investigation into the Treasury's handling of CCS and plan to insert an amendment to the Energy Bill requiring the government to implement a new "comprehensive national strategy for CCS to deliver the emissions reductions required" look like a reasonable set of proposals. The opposition will likely struggle to get the amendment passed in the Commons, but again many peers will feel they have every right to force the government into a rethink on CCS.
There is a clear irony in the way an unelected chamber is called upon to provide a check on an elected chamber. But if the MPs in the elected chamber wish to pursue policies that weren't put before the electorate and which undermine legally-binding commitments, then it is the job of peers to remind the government of its responsibilities.
The government could have avoided these latest challenges if ahead of the election it had defined how it planned to reform onshore wind energy subsidies and argued that while it wanted to cut emissions cost effectively certain technologies would be verboten for reasons of visual impact. It could have spiked the Lords' guns had it made it clear CCS funding was subject to cost considerations, or alternatively had accompanied the news investment was to be halted with a coherent plan for meeting medium and long-term emissions goals without these CCS projects. Instead it has pursued a strategy with holes big enough to drive an electric bus through (at least until the promised new "emissions reduction plan" materialises later this year) - peers cannot be blamed for trying to hold the government to account.
For various reasons this is likely to be a parliament when the House of Lords flexes its muscles with considerable regularity, and energy, climate and environmental policy are set to be a frequent source of parliamentary contention. As with the tax credits U-turn it may be in the government's own interests to resist the temptation to rage at the upper house and embrace the opportunity to re-think its position and get itself back on the right side of the argument. After all, that is what checks and balances are for.