The man-made global warming establishment wants a Conservative Government to set tough targets for emission reductions “to save the planet”.
The anti man-made global warming interest argues that target-led reductions will stifle growth and boost fuel poverty.
The energy security buffs warn that the lights will go out within the next ten years if lost capacity isn’t replaced.
The fuel poverty lobby wants fuel poverty reduced.
Few commentators seem to believe that any political party can square the circle. “The money just ain’t there,” Dan Lewis of the Economic Policy Centre wrote about Conservative plans to invest in renewables and nuclear replacement. The Taxpayers’ Alliance has warned that cutting emissions by over 40% by 2020 would slash the size of the economy by almost a third. Matt Sinclair worried here that Clark now proposes a carbon tax which could double energy bills.
At the risk of turning my hour or so with Clark upside-down, I’ll put conclusions upfront:
- The peaks of environmental concern tend to coincide with the peaks of economic booms. Perhaps the best-known photo of David Cameron – on a husky-drawn sled in Norway – was snapped before the crash. Rightly or wrongly, the recession has knocked the environment down the political agenda. The University of East Anglia climate gate scandal has damaged the global warming cause. The severe winter has dented faith in it further.
- I suspect that Clark has clocked all this, sniffed a rise in climate change scepticism on the centre-right and - with a future Conservative Government perhaps enjoying a small overall majority – adjusted policy accordingly. Not so long ago, the Party’s view was that nuclear power should be “a last resort”. But during a major recent policy announcement, Clark pledged to speed up nuclear plant construction. His speech put energy security, rather than curbing emissions, front-of-house.
- Clark confirmed to me that no single Conservative energy policy is now aimed exclusively at reducing emissions – and, thereby, “saving the planet”. “Since I’ve had this post,” he told me, “I’ve always sought to make sure that there are multiple justifications for policies that we have in this area. It turns out to an almost astonishing extent that the things you’d want to do to tackle climate change are the things that you’d want to do to reduce fuel poverty and the things that you’d want to secure the industrial future of the country so I think that all our policies have multiple justifications.” This is a significant shift in policy emphasis.
- Clark also made it clear that a Conservative Government would publish Department of Energy research into the costs to Britain of signing up to a 30% EU emissions reduction target by 2020 – which the Government is refusing to do. “Of course we should publish across government,” he said, “especially given the controversies in the climate change field I think any research ought to be available for public scrutiny.”
So what’s the story of the man who’s quietly but determinedly brushing up Conservative energy policy? And can he turn the ragged policy circle into a perfect square?
Clark cycles regularly with his family in his Tunbridge Wells constituency (“a glorious, undiscovered part of the world: wonderful views, rolling hills, beautiful woods”), but was born as a stranger to the countryside and the south - in Middlesbrough. “The area that I went to school in was and still is one of the most deprived areas of the whole country – a community called the South Bank, on the south bank of the Tees.”
His father was a milkman, as was his father before him. His mother worked later on a Sainsbury’s checkout. He was the first member of his family to go to University. Although “I didn’t have a deprived upbringing – quite the opposite,” it’s an unusual background for a senior Conservative politician. “It wasn’t at all certain that I would go to University. Most people left school at 16.”
Clark did otherwise. He moved on to sixth form college and then to the LSE to read economics – his first move to the south. Clark took up cycling “until my bike was stolen for one time too many.” He also rejected Teesside’s socialist establishment, spurned the Labour Party, and joined… the SDP.
Why not the Conservatives? Clark says: “I think it would be true to say that it would be a pretty unusual choice to join the Conservative Party going to the school I did at the time that I did.” But he was repelled by “the degree of complacency and low horizons of the Labour establishment that dominated everything locally”.
Clark was clearly – for those who follow the intricacies – an Owenite rather than a Jenkinsite, rejecting the merger with the Liberals, and supporting “a brand of social democracy which was liberal economically, strong on defence – the Cold War was on - and had a certain euro-sceptic attitude. These views were clearly to be found in the Conservative Party.”
He joined the Party during the early 1990s, got talent-spotted writing policy papers for that then outpost of tough social democrats, the Social Market Foundation, worked as a special adviser to Ian Lang (then Trade and Industry Secretary) and after a stint at the BBC – Clark was controller of commercial policy – wound up as the Party’s Director of Policy and a Westminster City Councillor.
He won a reputation in the former role as being very bright, more steely than his polite manner would suggest, and a ferocious defender of his territory. He was also an early pioneer of the Party’s work on social justice.
And so to Westminster in 2005 – and rapidly on to the front bench, where he won golden reviews for his policy work on civil society and the third sector (if you doubt it, hunt down and read up the report for the Church of England titled “Moral, but no compass”). But even Clark, surely, can’t keep all the energy lobbies happy? I ask him how much economic growth he’s prepared to sacrifice on the altar of emissions targets.
Clark is having none of it. “From what to what?” he counters, when I mention growth reductions. “I think you’d have to do this anyway. If you were to leave aside the environmental benefits we would want to do this anyway for reasons of energy security. There is no alternative. Some people are very passionate about their disbelief in the majority of scientific opinion. But it’s often the case that the most ardent sceptics tend to be the most hawkish on emissions – on energy security grounds.”
The bare walls of Clark’s office are an indication of an uncluttered mind: well-mannered, cerebral, skilled at twisting the rubik’s cube of policy challenge into immaculate order. The boy to whom the thought of being a politician “never occurred” is perhaps now on the brink of office. I ask this cool, pleasant, rational, very modern politician whether he’s tough enough to make it at the top.
The answer brings with it just a touch of heat. “I think that swaggering around and talking tough as a displacement activity for being ruthlessly clear about the problems that you want to solve, and how you’re going to solve them, isn’t the best way of trying to proceed in politics.”
"It’s best to seek to find common ground – to reach out and entice people into being released from their previous view, and to see the sense in your own. If there’s a kind of macho thing about needing to be denunciatory and divisive I don’t think that’s likely to be politically successful."