Tom Burke’s political commentary: Can blending blue and yellow really make green?

ENDS Report 424, p. 51, May 2010.

The distribution of seats in the new coalition cabinet might concern some environmentalists, but the Conservative and Liberal Democrat green ministers should not find it too hard to work together

Cabinet creation is an arcane process. The rapid shuffling of seats and the bottoms sitting on them in the 24 hours following a prime minister’s visit to the Queen is a uniquely British activity. The finished product rarely resembles the prototype.

Previous experience with the issues is no requirement for high office. Late on the Friday afternoon immediately after the 2001 election, Jack Straw was already being briefed by environment officials when he learned he was to become foreign secretary because the Americans objected to Robin Cook.

Fitting bottoms to seats is even more difficult in our new world of coalition government. The already tricky task of balancing factions within a ruling party is now made infinitely more complex by having to achieve a workable balance with, and within, the coalition partner.

This led to a rollercoaster ride for Nick Herbert, the Conservative shadow environment secretary before the election. The morning after the coalition deal was struck he was on his way to the environment department (DEFRA), by midday he was en route to transport, by nightfall he had arrived at the Home Office as minister for the police.

These gyrations can place hefty strains on the machinery of government as well as being stressful for the individuals concerned. DEFRA was created not because anyone had thought carefully about how best to manage Britain’s environment but because agriculture on its own was not a big enough job for Margaret Beckett.

Nick Herbert, who was well regarded as shadow environment secretary, seems to have fallen victim to the widely noted paucity of women in the new cabinet. Had he gone to DEFRA, it would have redressed one of the more egregious errors in Labour’s botched creation of the department since it was widely anticipated that planning would have gone there with him.

Caroline Spelman was briefly a spokeswoman on the environment while in opposition, so will already be familiar with the issues. However, she will be more comfortable with the agriculture side of her new department, having previously worked in agribusiness.

In this she will have something in common with her junior ministers, who all have links to the farming world. Given the perennial tension between farming and the environment, this is likely to cause anxiety in the environmental sector.

Ms Spelman will be handling the environment alongside Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat secretary of state for energy and climate change. These are potentially two of the more politically exposed positions to occupy in the fledgling coalition.

The environment was an essential part of making the coalition possible. It was central to David Cameron’s successful effort to re-position the Conservative Party under his leadership. The Liberal Democrats have long taken pride in their role as the environmental champion among Britain’s major political parties.

It is no accident that the environment section of the coalition agreement was the longest and most detailed. Nor that Mr Cameron has been quick to signal that his will be Britain’s “greenest government ever”.

The urgency and immediacy of the fiscal crisis will act as a powerful restraint on the fissiparous wings of the coalition. Disruptive behaviour on economic issues is likely to be regarded by both leaderships as self-indulgent and disloyal.

The same will not be so true for the environment. Any failure to deliver on the spirit, as well as letter, of the environment agreement will provide cover for those parts of the Liberal Democrat base not really convinced Nick Clegg made the right choice.

The question of whether blue and yellow really can make green is already being widely asked. The potential for deep splits is clear, although these may not occur on many of the top-of-mind issues for environmentalists. There are indeed differences on issues such as emissions targets, renewables, public transport and airports. But these look to be matters more of detail than of principle. They will not be too difficult to bridge.

On off-shore oil drilling, where the gap between the parties looks significant, BP’s performance in the US will have dented the industry’s enthusiasm for opening up further areas near Britain for drilling.

The one issue where there is real potential for the differences to become divisive is on nuclear power. This risk has already attracted a lot of attention. It will intensify as the nuclear industry and its media hangers-on redouble their effort to bounce the government into bolstering already shaky investor confidence.

Little that is said or done by the coalition on this issue in coming months will escape intense scrutiny to test compatibility with the agreement’s commitment that there should be no ‘public subsidy’ – but are there non-public subsidies? There is already a strong suspicion that the last government was developing stealth subsidies.

This is likely to lead to an escalation of the debate, already begun in relation to responsibility for meeting the cost of radioactive waste management, over what actually constitutes a subsidy.

The nuclear sector may believe such a deeply technical classification debate would not get much political traction. In the more highly charged world of coalition politics this may no longer be true.

Fortunately, there is no need to risk putting the coalition under unnecessary strain. There is no truth to the proposition that the lights will go out without new nuclear. We are already building more new generating capacity than will come off-line in the next five years (see pp 15-16).

About the same amount is already being planned for the five years after that. Most of this will be gas, which troubles people who have not noticed that the International Energy Agency is now projecting a glut of gas on world markets. It is hard to see, therefore, why anyone who advocates the efficacy of markets should share their concern.