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

Clegg Is Playing A Very Risky Game. Well.

Lets look back over the events of today:

– Talks with the Conservatives were going along OK, but some of their backbenchers were grumbling, and our party was evidently very iffy about signing up to anything which achieved no advance on electoral reform. There had been reports of some meetings going on between ourselves and the Labour party.

– Our own meeting of the parliamentary party made it clear to the negotiating team that they weren’t very happy with the offers on the table so far.

-David Laws gave a rather odd statement, in which he seemed not to say a whole lot.

-The BBC reported that there was some suggestion 10 Downing Street might be making a statement, and it was, somewhat bizarrely, suggested that whether they did or not depended on a careful analysis of what David Laws said.

-A statement was indeed forthcoming, with Gordon Brown announcing an opening of negotiations with Nick Clegg. Curiously enough, it was timed just before David Cameron was known to be meeting with his shadow cabinet and then later his backbenchers.

-Nick Clegg makes a statement, quite soon afterwards, confirming this.

-What had looked like a tricky meeting for David Cameron comes out with a result that he will concede a referendum on PR, which, presumably, a few hours ago was not even part of what he was going to try to sell to his MPs.

So, the conspiracy-theorist in me suspects that Labour and Clegg have managed to time an announcement at about the right time to focus the minds of the Conservatives when they were meeting, and screw a bit more out of them.

Good. It might seem cynical of us, but since we have such a crappy deal under an electoral system which is stacked against us, I think we can be forgiven for levering absolutely anything we can from a hung parliament when one comes along. We do, however, have to think about the perceptions of this. As Jennie points out, people will now assume we’re ditching talks with the Tories unless something comes forward pretty soon.

The game Clegg has been playing is striking a fine balance between screwing as much out of Cameron as he possibly can, and being seen to act in his own interest and not that of the country. I think he has strung this out about as long as he can afford to if he doesn’t want to consign the party to such unpopularity it might well not recover from it. I don’t intend that as a criticism, by the way; a hung parliament is such an unusual opportunity for us that he would have been wrong not to give the negotiations all he can.

The question is, has he now got something on the table that’s worth the headache? Lets assume, as most of the political world does, that a Lab-Lib deal is not really a viable option, for the simple reason that the seats don’t stack up. What this leaves us with is the conclusion that Clegg has to go with the Conservatives sooner or later. In today’s announcement from Brown, he has managed to flush out a better deal than was on the table before. He has to take this or leave it now, and if he leaves it, we remain out of power, with no referendum on AV, and minimal influence over Conservative policy.

But he hasn’t got PR, so has he got enough?

It’s a hard question, but I think, at the end of the day, that if he continues to play games with this tomorrow, we will go past the point where that balance between getting a good deal and being seen to pursue self-interest flips, and he starts to do massive damage to the party. I’m sure Nick knows this. So, if he carries on doing as well as I think he’s done so far, I predict that tomorrow will see the sealing of a deal for the only viable coalition on the table, the newly upgraded Con-LabLib coalition deal. If so, I would support it. Of course I want STV, but having got this far in the hung parliament talks we would be set back at the next general election, with little to show for it, if we don’t take it.