Monday, September 22, 2008

Throwing down the gauntlet

For those of us who believe that politics is about policies, rather than the soap opera of "politicians' lives", by far the most important speech to be delivered at the Labour Party conference came today – not from the prime minister but from business (aka energy) secretary John Hutton.

The importance cannot be overstated for, while the recent emphasis has been on the economic crisis, without cheap(ish) and available energy – with electricity supplies very much in the frame – we do not have an economy. The consequences of a shutdown of the nation's electricity supply are too dire even to think about, yet someone must, otherwise the nightmare will become the reality.

As the man said, "one of the most important threats to our long term competitiveness… Indeed, our sovereignty as a nation … is the new international battle for energy security." He then went on to say, "Affordable, reliable energy is the bedrock of our economic competitiveness. A pre-condition for fairness and social justice in our society."

Thus, in a speech that The Guardian thinks was very much designed to wrong-foot the green-tinged Conservatives, Hutton made case for coal and nuclear power, telling the conference that the two "controversial" sources of energy were crucial for Britain's future.

Britain needed to undergo a "renaissance in nuclear power", and coal would continue to be a "critically important fuel" for the country, he said, adding, "And because energy security is a first thought, not an afterthought, I will not turn my back on another critical source of energy security for the UK: coal."

Noting that people "feel passionate about coal," The Guardian has it that Hutton "took a swipe at David Cameron", who sees "an opportunity for pandering". Coal is critically important for the UK, Hutton said, "Flexible. Available. Reducing our reliance on imported gas."

"Tories say no to new coal and send mixed messages on nuclear; Lib Dems say to no to new coal and nuclear," Hutton averred. "No coal plus no nuclear equals no lights. We need to make sure that the choice for the country in the months ahead is equally simple: leadership for the long-term challenges facing Britain with Labour, or posturing and economic risk under the Conservatives."

That, of course, is the issue. By 2020, some 80 percent of the UK's gas will have to be imported, "much of it from the most unstable regions on the planet", which cannot be safe.

Thus, we are told, Hutton's remarks show that Labour believes that Cameron could be vulnerable on energy as high oil prices and the wider global economic downturn make people wary of restrictions on fuel even if they are designed to help the environment.

And therein lies the challenge. Hutton has already said that energy security must take precedence over "climate change". Today, he translated that into policy and threw down the gauntlet.

It remains to be seen whether a Conservative Party, advised by Zac Goldsmith – who believes that eco-terrorism against coal-fired generator plants is acceptable – can rise to the challenge.