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Blogs

Osborne’s latest ‘defining moment’

20 June 2012

2:45 PM

20 June 2012

2:45 PM

It is always sensible to pay attention to Ben Brogan’s Telegraph column, if only because it so frequently seems to have been dictated by friendly chaps at the Treasury. Today’s is no exception. Cunning Wee Georgie Osborne has had another one of his master-wheezes that, with a fair wind, will seal the next election for the Conservatives. Again. You see:

‘Conservatives yearn for red meat policies to please the voters. They want a political Plan B for a Tory majority in 2015 to replace the one based on the assumption of economic recovery and tax cuts that blew up in George Osborne’s hands last year. MPs wondering how to achieve a victory in today’s darkened circumstances want compelling measures that can be described in a few crisp words on the doorstep.’

This may be true though what Brogan means is Conservatives yearn for red meat policies that please people who already vote Conservative. This is not quite the same thing. Be that as it may, the Chancellor has found a new enemy: wind turbines.

‘The Chancellor will shortly give them just that. In a few weeks, as part of the Energy Bill, ministers will announce a reduction of up to a quarter in the value of Renewable Obligation Certificates – or &”Rocs”. Yes, I realise that’s hardly a sentence to set the pulse racing. But if one considers that Rocs are the means by which the taxpayer subsidises the wind farm industry, and that the Chancellor proposes to slash that giveaway by 25 per cent, then translated into plain English it means this: onshore wind farms will be killed stone dead.   

A simple tweak of the financial incentives will halt the march of the turbines across the British landscape. An issue that has poisoned the relationship between millions of affected voters and the politicians who represent them will be resolved. Conservatives will be able to say: &”We did that. We stopped the wind farm madness.” No wonder some optimists on the backbenches speak of a defining moment that will give them something to cheer – and be cheered for.’

Really? Is that it? Apparently so. Now it is true that the arguments in favour of wind turbines are often over-stated. It is also the case, as the Spectator has often noted, that shale gas reserves may yet render much of the renewables industry moot (though it would still be wise to hedge this). But, really, reducing the subsidies paid to wind power is supposed to be some kind of ‘defining moment’? Come off it!

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In the first place, most people have precious little contact with wind power. Secondly, because wind power is such a relatively small part of the overall energy portfolio reducing the subsidies paid to the industry can only have a modest impact (if any) on household energy bills. Thirdly, and inconveniently, wind power is quite popular.

A poll produced by YouGov for the Sunday Times last November (which I’ve chosen precisely because it was not commissioned by any part of the green lobby) reported that 56 per cent of respondents favoured more wind farms and, what’s more,  60 per cent of voters — including 53 per cent of Tory supporters – approved of government subsidies to wind power while just 26 per cent disapproved. Indeed, a plurality of Tory voters (43 per cent) favoured increasing the number of wind farms operating in Britain.

Now the people may be foolish. They may be wrong. They may well be gulled by green propaganda. But, if this is an accurate snapshot of their feelings, its seems improbable that they will see reducing green energy subsidies as a ‘defining’ or transformational moment in this government’s fortunes.

This is so even though there are perfectly decent arguments for accelerating planned reductions in these subsidies (which is all Osborne’s wheeze really amounts to).

So, really, like so much else, this is as much a matter of signalling as it is of real policy. It is designed to put some distance between the Conservatives and their coalition colleagues and this distance is supposed to cheer the Tory grass-roots. That’s fine too but it cannot be supposed that a party increasingly concerned with placating its own base is necessarily putting itself in the best position to fight and win the next general election.

Public attitudes change of course, and the public may yet turn against renewable energy. It hasn’t done so yet, however, even if the shale revolution offers the prospect that attitudes may yet change. In general, however, pundits vastly exaggerate the importance and impact of individual ‘bold’ policy shifts.

But perhaps the most telling part of Brogan’s column is the apparent acceptance that Osborne’s economic plans have failed and must be supplemented by a political (not economic) alternative that is explicitly designed to enthuse Tory backbenchers and members. In other words, the Tories must be a bit more like the Tories voters don’t much like. Perhaps Cameron and Osborne can reinvent themselves yet again but the impression given even by friendly columns such as this is of a Tory leadership that isn’t sure of itself, what it really believes in, where it is going or how to get there. Apart from that things are fine.

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