What happened? The week started so well, with David Cameron coming over all Yoda and trying to stretch healing hands over the increasingly toxic bickering between the treasury and the department of energy and climate change over renewables, nuclear and gas.
It was going to be beautiful. They were all going to meet together, have a statesmanlike chat, say sorry for the rude things they’d said about each other (“Say sorry properly George!”), and find common ground. Turbines and power stations would miraculously spring – like Brigadoon – into being. George and Ed would stroll off hand in hand, boyishly punching each other in the shoulder. Ah shucks! And then, as so often with the entertaining soap opera that is government in the modern world, it all went bosoms up.
First Cameron appeared to be actually making energy policy up as he went along in Prime Minister’s Question Time. As he said “I can announce that we will be legislating so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers” there was the all-too familiar sound of hands slapping foreheads all round Whitehall – he said what? Frantic questions all round ensued. Did DECC know about this? As their officials asked for a bit of time to answer press questions it became clear that they did not. Did the energy companies know? Yet again their press officers pleaded ignorance. And annoyance, frankly.
Then it got still worse as the Independent ran a story about George Osbourne’s favourite nickname for the green lobby groups; apparently he affectionately refers to them as “the environmental taliban”. After giving a speech at the Confederation on British Industry the following day, DECC secretary of state Ed Davey was unable to stop a micro-expression of irritation crossing his face when one journalist prodded him with this.
Back at the house of commons, shadow energy secretary Caroline Flint was merrily laying into the government and the energy minister John Hayes (Davey was still at the CBI) sitting opposite her. “Did he know about the announcement yesterday? It’s like something out of the Thick of It,” she said. “Millions of people deserve better”. Hayes, given a rubbish job, rose to the occasion quite magnificently, even coaxing a laugh from Flint, as he said: “She asks if we knew what the Prime minister has been considering? Of course we understand what the prime minister has been considering…” In other words no, then.
Meanwhile Mark Lynas was telling George Osbourne to be very ware as “the environmental taliban is on the move”. And the green NGOs were banding together, for the first time since Copenhagen, to reinforce that message, with a demonstration outside the treasury even as questions were being asked in the house. “Dear minister,” one NGO wrote to Osbourne, “If the story is accurate, please could you be specific about which individuals, MPs, Ministers or organisations you are likening to the Taliban?”
So. For a week that, Cameron must have hoped, might quiet down general anxiety about the direction of “the greenest government ever”, it’s been a bit of a mess. Where is it all headed? Davey made one telling, and revealing comment at the CBI: “No one will be happier than me to see the politics taken out of energy”.
Actually, after a week in which energy politics look more like mudwrestling than government, I should think quite a lot of us would be pretty happy too.