Bloggers’ Interview: Chris Huhne

The other day, an elite group of bloggers* (and myself) met up with Chris Huhne MP, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (and a Lib Dem to boot), for a nice chat. I will leave it to those terribly organised people who actually took an audio recording of the interview to relay in accurate quotes Chris’s exact words (or indeed to simply upload the audio), but here are my own impressions of the interview. Some of them might well now be familiar from Chris’s speech today.

Whilst we were getting sat down, we admired Chris’s shiny Susan Kramer for President badge – a decision he justified on the grounds that he believes that she will be much better able to devote the appropriate amount of time to the job from her position of not-being-an-MP.

That out of the way, we got down to business. One of the most exciting aspects of the coalition government is the opportunity it gives us to move the green agenda forward. With a coalition agreement full of good things for the environment, and a Lib Dem minister installed in the relevant ministry, as well as commitments from the Prime Minister himself that this will be the “greenest government ever”, there is good reason to expect great things of this government on these issues. It has been a bit of a disappointment that since the government was formed, the frantic pace of announcements from some government departments has not been matched by Huhne’s own corner of Whitehall.

It was heartening, therefore, that Chris was keen to tell us about the government’s “Green Deal”, the details of which he expects to be announcing some time around the second week of November. The programme will seek to massively improve the energy efficiency of Britain’s existing housing stock, a massive task which must be undertaken if we are to reach our international commitments on carbon emissions by 2050. By that time, the government hopes that our entire housing stock will be much more energy efficient, with proper insulation, double glazing, and so on.

It is an improvement which is desperately needed. The average house in Britain uses more energy to heat it than those in many Scandinavian countries, where (given the colder climate) we would expect them to use more than us. There is clearly, therefore, considerable scope to reduce our energy demands in this area.

Learning from similar programmes which have been set up in places like Australia already, with some problems associated, Chris hopes to avoid some of the pitfalls which such schemes have run into in the past. The programme should have pilot schemes running fairly soon, with the full on programme getting underway in 2012. Thousands of jobs will be supported by the scheme, which will be on a scale not seen in the rather timid programmes we have seen so far. This will therefore represent the beginning of the kind of green growth and green jobs which the party has long talked about.

The basis of the Green Deal will be that energy companies pay for the improvements people make to their homes, which will then be paid back by the consumer as part of their bills. The consumer’s energy requirements will decrease sufficiently, however, that even whilst they are contributing as part of their bills to the costs of the work undertaken, their costs will still be lower than they otherwise would be in most cases. Assuming it works, this sounds like a very sensible win-win for all concerned.

A couple of categories of house will not find themselves in this position, however: “hard to heat” homes (with no cavity walls, for instance) which will be more expensive to improve, and the homes of the fuel poor, who often currently run their homes at lower temperatures than they would ideally be able to. In the latter case, Chris would expect (and encourage) those people to run their homes at a decent temperature after the improvements have been made, which would of course mean that some of the saving in energy requirements is negated.

Moving on, we felt it wouldn’t be right to talk to Chris without raising the nuclear issue. Personally, I have never quite been in the same place as my party on this issue. Much as I would like to see Britain getting its electricity from mostly renewable sources in the future, there is nevertheless an approaching gap in our capacity (with so many old nuclear plants going offline in the next 10-20 years) that will probably have to be filled with one last generation of nuclear fission plants, in my opinion. So I do not share the anguish of some in the party that the coalition is going to allow new nuclear to go ahead, so long as it is not subsidised by the state.

Interestingly, Chris is technically entitled to abstain from votes in parliament on the legislation to enable this, since the coalition allows the Lib Dems to abstain on the issue. Perhaps sensibly, however, Chris recognises that it would look rather odd for the minister to abstain on their own legislation, so he is likely to vote for it. As he is keen to point out, opposition to nuclear power in the Lib Dem party is motivated by a variety of underpinnings, with some “theologically” opposed to them, and some simply finding it hard to believe that they are a cost effective option. Coming from the latter camp, it isn’t actually all that inconsistent for Chris to vote for new nuclear, since the government has made it quite clear that it will not be receiving subsidy.

What this does imply is that we were wrong as a party to suggest that it would not be possible for new nuclear to be built without subsidy. Chris is quite open about this, saying explicitly that he was wrong in assuming that was the case. More hearteningly, Chris is also all too aware that we are currently the third worst country in the EU in terms of installed renewable generation capacity. He is determined that by the end of this government we will be the fastest improving country on renewables.

Moving on, Joe asked Chris about the international dimension to his work. Was he expecting an agreement to come out of the forthcoming talks in Cancun, following the dashed hopes at last year’s talks. Unfortunately, Chris does not sound optimistic, since much of the progress that can be made hinges on the USA being able to deliver support for any agreement from the house of representatives and the senate. With President Obama struggling to deliver any such agreement currently, and a swing to the right expected from the forthcoming midterm elections, the outlook does not look overly optimistic. Nonetheless, Chris is pushing ahead with what he feels he can currently do, which is to draw together the countries of the EU to reinvigorate European unity and leadership on the issue. As individuals, the EU member states can only do so much, but as with so many other things, together the EU can wield much greater influence. Chris reminded us that Russia signed Kyoto mainly because of pressure from the EU, not because they actually believed in its importance.

Next up, Alex wanted to know about the future of the RHI and the CHP. Much as Chris wanted to reassure Alex, who has a personal interest in this, he wasn’t able to give any specific commitments at the moment, since the RHI is, like so many other things, a part of the Comprehensive Spending Review. Nonetheless, it is “inconceivable” that heat would not be supported in some way by the government, for the simple reason that without a heat strategy we will simply not be able to reach our legal obligations on emissions.

Dragging the tone down from lofty environmentalism to low politics, I asked Chris what the balance was between thinking of himself as “the Lib Dem on the frontline” on the green agenda within the coalition, and how much he simply thinks of himself as “the minister”, getting on with an important government job. By the sounds of it (and I had already got this impression from much of what Chris said throughout the interview), he does not consider himself to be on the frontline of any battles for influence between the coalition parties, at least not in his role as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. This is such an important area that Chris’s preferred approach has been to seek ways forward which will command wide support, not just from the Tories but also from Labour, so that they need not be interrupted by any future changes of government. This may also explain the lack of hasty announcements of policy from Huhne’s department, in the way that some might suggest have been forthcoming from other departments.

Of course, Chris also has responsibilities as a member of various committees, and he hinted that his position on the committee which deals with European issues is perhaps what brings him most often to think in terms of pushing for the Lib Dem line.

Lastly, we covered the advance of multi-party politics. Chris tends to the view that the people who are struggling most to catch up with the new way things are done are the journalists. Nonetheless, the new politics will require a politeness and respect which has not been a common feature of our politics in the past.

With our time at an end, we grabbed a quick group photo, and Chris went on his way. Overall, I was very impressed with Chris’s willingness still to meet us lesser mortals, and to discuss his work in government so transparently.

*A full list of my marvellous and sexy blogger colleagues (with apologies to those who aren’t yet bloggers and I therefore can’t link to!):

Alex Foster

Millennium‘s Daddy Richard

Prateek Buch

Alex Folkes

Mary Reid

Joe Jordan

Helen Duffett

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It’s Not About Ian Tomlinson

Lib Dem Voice has picked up a Q&A with Chris Huhne in the Indy, in which he answers the following question (in bold) with the following response:

The police officer who assaulted Ian Tomlinson didn’t do anything worse than many other police officers filmed that day. Shouldn’t they be investigated too?

The officer who lashed out at Ian Tomlinson is not typical. But any constable who betrays the public’s trust to use force responsibly should be disciplined and, if appropriate, charged. It is lamentably unfair to the vast majority of self-controlled officers if a thug tars the whole force.

Commenters on LDV have expressed dismay at this, and I have to agree. Whilst the death of Ian Tomlinson is tragic, and should be properly investigated, the police should not be allowed to get away with a diversionary “bad apple” manouvre here. There was a lot of rather over-zealous policing going on for the G20 protests on April 1st, and questions should be asked not simply of officers caught overstepping the mark when tensions ran high, but also of the senior officers who determined that kettling anyone who turned up was a sensible or productive tactic.

Since April 1st, discussion of police methods has been steadily displaced by discussion of Ian Tomlinson. His death is significant, but it should not be allowed to become a proxy for the wider issues. Whether Tomlinson was or was not a protestor, or being antagonistic to the police, or drunk, are pertinent questions to the investigation into his death, but they have absolutely no bearing on the wider questions of whether the climate camp should have been charged in the way it was to clear it, or whether kettling should be the default tactic used on people exercising their right to protest.

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Cambridge Hustings and My Dilemma

OK, think I’ll stick to something nice and uncontroversial for the next few posts, at least. Just (well, a few hours ago) got back from Cambridge’s very own hustings. All three candidates spoke well, and the most common response from people that I heard was “well I really don’t know that that made the choice any clearer, they’re all quite good”.

However, I will attempt to draw something meaningful from it. Bear in mind that this is likely to be subjective, and affected by my support for Simon Hughes (though whether it would mean I’m kinder or harsher to him, I’m not sure).

Ming was first up for his “10” minute opening gambit. He stepped up, announced that “I did write a speech, but actually I’m not going to give it. It’s on the website if you want to see it.” An impressive manouvre, especially followed as it was by his stepping out from behind the podium and hence away from microphone assistance. He put quite a lot of passion (or at least that kind of shoutyness that politicians of all hues like to convince us is passion) in, and spoke at quite a high volume, having just made a few rather lame comments/jokes about his voice being bad (mainly targetted at the “I’m an everyman, I’ve been watching SPORTS! and shouting at my TV” agenda). He gave a speech mainly about campaigning, about how he’d fought for his seat, etc, and touching on all the typical things at the moment: localism, no to nuclear, etc.

Huhne was up next. It was immediately noticeable (and bear in mind I’m a student studying Natural Sciences, I have to follow two hours of not always that absorbing lectures a day) that he was holding my attention and, I suspect other people’s, rather less effectively. He gave exactly the sort of speech I would expect from him, good on the content but (particularly after Ming) not so hot on the passion, or the broad vision. Still, many very intelligent things to say on the issues he covered, none of which would surprise you very much, all taken from more of an economic standpoint than the other two.

Hughes finished the opening statements with an equally unsurprising performance, talking about his usual set of issues, being a little bit more social about things than the other two, peppering it with details but also maintaining the thrust of what he was saying. Of course, being Simon, he did that terrible habit he has of trying to tell us in advance how many points he’s about to make, starting of with number 1, and then never really bothering to continue down a list. He always says “finally” about three times in drawing to a close. Having said that, he’s not all that much more waffly than the others, he just draws attention to his waffle more. He closed by making a bid for the “I can attract people from outside as well as sing to the choir” ground.

So far, not all that moved. Campbell made a pretty good and slightly surprising speech, though the spontenaiety of his speech was compromised slightly by his continued occasional glances at the notes he wasn’t speaking from. The other two did very little surprising.

There followed the questions, one about schooling (they all oppose 11+), one about nuclear power (they all dislike it, Huhne because nobody is willing to pay since 3-mile island, etc), one about NHS funding mainly being for staff (they all think we need to cut down agency staff, and Ming perhaps surprisingly drew attention to his recent treatments). Really for the most part you couldn’t find much of a gap between them on policy, other than on Iraq, of course, which Ming didn’t pick nearly as much of an argument about as he did on Question Time.

At the end, a couple of quite nice questions to round off with. What is your one core ideal that needs to be communicated? Huhne: Localism, devolution of power, innovation, etc. Ming: PR, and his spiel about voting down a Queen’s Speech that didn’t include it. Hughes: Both, essentially, phrased as “power to the people”. Which is fair enough, really, I guess. He did also say it partly to pick up on a comment earlier from a questioner who remarked that everyone seemed to believe roughly the same things and she felt she was in the right party.

So essentially, with little to pick between them on policy, I’m left with not a lot to go on other than style. At the end of the day, policy wise, they’ve all got it right, I think.

So:

Ming started with a good speech. But it has to be said that occasionally he makes little slips in sentence construction if he gets carried away (“Britain should be the party of UN authority”?!). To be fair, there seemed to be a lot of little mistakes in speaking from all three, at one point Simon Hughes sounded, for some reason, as if he called Chris Huhne “Christmas Tree”…. Nonetheless, the point remains. Ming gave a distinct impression of slight tiredness, he spent much of the second half sniffling into a hanky. Which is fair enough, but I wonder whether a General Election campaign might not start to get to him too. Of course, he might just genuinely have a cold.

Simon did well, though as always he can’t resist little jokey comments (better than Ming’s, usually) where they might be best not voiced. He seemed to me to have the balance of detail, broad vision and passion about right.

Huhne was great on the detail, but as I mentioned, it is not unfair to say that he is not as engaging a speaker as the other two. He did mention a lot of greenyness, though, which gets him marks from me.

So overall, none of it changed my opinion of Simon Hughes, which is that he’s by far the best of the three, but that he may not be the best at appealing to all possible swing voters. But then, I don’t know who is. Huhne appeals to the people Hughes doesn’t, Ming is quite broad in his appeal but less strongly appealing. None is ideal. At the end of the day, then, I simply want to vote for the one I agree with the most. Which is Simon.

But my question to you (those who’ve held out to the end!) is, which order to put the other two in? I was hoping to find the answer to this question this evening. As it is, I don’t think I’m any the wiser. So come on folks: Why should I vote Ming or Huhne as my second choice? (since presumably, you all think my second vote will end up being important!) I await persuasion…