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Thursday, 9th February 2023

A smidge over troubled waters: the UK needs bold new energy policy but can Rishi Sunak’s reshuffle deliver it?

Jonathan Vernon

London,,United,Kingdom,-,October,25,2022:,Uk,Prime,Minister

 

The next General Election could be won or lost on the state of the NHS, questions of political integrity or issues none of us have yet anticipated. If the last twelve months have taught us anything, it’s that political climate change is a very real phenomenon – and that much like global warming, it tends to cause mass displacement. 

This week it was the Prime Minister’s reshuffle, and the creation of four new government departments, that saw cabinet ministers and civil servants clearing their desks and hiking boxes of their belongings down the corridors of Westminster and Whitehall. 

It may be too soon to judge whether this marks the beginning of a sea change in government policy, or just a spot of weather. Commentators have been quick to point out that very few of the faces around Rishi Sunak have changed. They’ve been even quicker to say those that have are either too ‘Red Wall’ (new deputy vice chair of the Conservative Party Lee Anderson) or too ‘trad Tory’ (the five new ministers, all of whom represent constituencies south of Norwich).

Forced to steer a course between Syclla and Carybdis, Sunak hasn’t commanded much credit or sympathy, either for attempting a unity pick or for putting his stamp on the structure of government. This doesn’t raise hopes of his party rallying behind his agenda anytime soon.

Suggestions that this agenda will only be set back by tinkering with the structure of Whitehall may be peremptory, however. The creation of a Department of Energy Security and Net Zero is not just posturing, or even mere acknowledgment that Grant Shapps’s brief in the disbanded Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was already dominated by energy. 

At the urging of business leaders, the Prime Minister has moved to recognise that, whatever issues win or lose the next election, it will be fought in large part over where we get our energy, what it’s going to cost, and how our answers to these questions can stimulate growth and make the UK world-competitive.

“At the urging of business leaders, the Prime Minister has moved to recognise that, whatever issues win or lose the next election, it will be fought in large part over where we get our energy.”

In the United States, President Biden’s $370bn Inflation Reduction Act plans to douse with tax credits industries that reduce the nation’s reliance not just on foreign oil, but foreign sources of key minerals used in clean energy technologies – the extraction and processing of which are currently dominated by China. If it succeeds, the legislation will supercharge domestic production and consumption of green tech, not only addressing the climate emergency but heading off a rush for resources that could tear up swathes of the planet.

The UK is currently a minnow in these waters, as Ben Marlow’s chastening assessment of recent attempts to boost EV manufacturing in Tuesday’s Telegraph makes abundantly clear. If the promise of ‘energy security’ means anything, the UK needs to be far more bold in the development of clean energy production and infrastructure.

Keir Starmer is already in front of this, with the announcement of his party’s flagship policy in September evoking post-War reconstruction, and anticipating comparisons currently being made between Biden’s intervention and FDR, with Labour’s ‘Green New Deal’.

“Labour’s message was clear. Moments of societal crisis demand societal change.”

Labour’s message was clear. Moments of societal crisis demand societal change. Governments that support industry, increase productivity and attract investment have been the engine of such change many times before – and they can be so again. 

The Prime Minister may want a solution that’s less FDR, and more Silicon Valley. But that might be part of the problem. As Paul Waugh pointed out in the Independent this week, it’s far easier to imagine Boris Johnson selling green jobs to the Red Wall than our current PM (whether or not he’s wearing a hard hat).

The water is rising around Rishi. If he doesn’t want to be packed up and shipped out himself, he will need his new department to come up with a serious plan – and fast.