All hands on DECC: Ed Davey interview

Written by Sam Macrory on 25 April 2014 in Interview
Scourge of the climate change sceptics, energetic campaigner, Lib Dem leadership material, coalition middle-man and knackered father, Ed Davey shows his many sides to Sam Macrory, who finds a cabinet minister committed to his tricky brief – but unsure about his party’s future political partnerships

This article is from the May 2014 issue of Total Politics

Energy companies are warning that Britain’s lights risk going out before the decade is out. Vladimir Putin is playing hardball over Russia’s role in global power supply. And a new report predicts that the world is heading towards a climate disaster of nightmarish proportions.

As challenges go, these take some beating. No wonder Ed Davey is struggling to sleep at night.

But the secretary of state for energy and climate change has an even better excuse for the sleep shortfall: he recently became a father – he already has a young son, John – to Eleanor, his two-month-old daughter.

“I am more tired, I think that is fair to say… occasionally it’s tiring,” Davey admits as he squints into the sunshine while posing for photos on the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s roof.  He’s not complaining though, anything but. “Sometimes I just end up smiling in the day. Probably, I’m a lot happier. Not that I was unhappy before, but it’s a special thing. To be honest, Eleanor just gives you a new adrenalin.”

The spontaneous smiles and added adrenalin kick must help, but the energy secretary seems to be a more combustible character than the one who arrived at DECC for the first time in 2012. The spikier mood isn’t just down to the enforced separation from his family, who are enjoying the Easter sun while Davey is back behind his desk at the department, or the unavoidable lack of sleep. Davey, so polite that many doubted whether he would be able to replace the rather more abrasive Chris Huhne when the latter resigned in 2012, appears to be keen to throw his broad shoulders into battle. Or rather battles. The press, the Conservatives, Ed Miliband, Putin, Nigel Farage – Davey sounds fed up, and in some cases furious, with all of them.

Those unnamed departmental sources who criticised Davey for “downing tools” and taking paternity leave at the height of the February floods may be pleased that he’s working during the parliamentary recess, but their boss is baffled by the criticism.

“It’s sad that some journalists and newspapers think it’s bad that fathers shouldn’t spend time with their new-born,” he complains. “What century are they living in? These papers talk about family, the importance of family, then they criticise wanting to spend a few days with the new child and looking after the wife – because my wife needed some care. It’s extraordinary. As someone who was pushing family-friendly legislation [when employment minister], as someone who is trying to get fathers more of a role, trying to get families more choice, I was always going to take my paternity leave. It sends a good signal. Fathers taking time off should be encouraged.” A month or so on, however, Ed Davey’s time off is well and truly over.

Following Miliband’s promise to freeze bills, the dispute over the cost of energy looks set to be a major divide on the campaign trail ahead of next year’s general election. But it’s not just the price punch-up with Labour that Davey has to engage in: as one of just a handful of Liberal Democrat ministers to head a government department Davey knows that he has an opportunity – and responsibility – to talk up his party’s achievements in government. Luckily for him, the DECC brief has prompted endless coalition spats as the two parties argue over the merits of wind farms and fracking, green taxes or even the science behind climate change.

So would he say that David Cameron, in 2015, can claim to have led the “greenest government ever”? After all, earlier this year the prime minister was reported to have expressed his frustration with “all the green crap”...

Yes, says Davey, this coalition has “without a doubt” been the greenest government ever. But there’s a caveat. “That’s significantly down to the Liberal Democrats’ role in the government,” he adds, pointing to a doubling of renewable energy usage since 2010 and the UK’s “world-leading” role in offshore wind.

“We had a target in the past of producing 30% of our electricity by 2020 from renewables. I think we’re going to beat that and it’s not often a minister can actually say, ‘we’ve not only got a target but we’re quite confident we’re going to beat it.’ That’s a measure of the success. We’ve taken the green agenda further than any government, and no one seriously thinks that would have happened if the Liberal Democrats hadn’t been in power.”

So would David Cameron be disingenuous if he claimed that he was the man behind the greenest government ever? Davey checks himself. After all, there’s still a year of cabinet meetings to go:

“This has been a coalition achievement. Every policy has to go through a collective process,” he insists. “There have been some fantastic achievements by Conservatives. My colleague Greg Barker has been a real champion of things like solar. I’d like to make it as cross-party as possible but I think it is also fair to say that we have had to argue our case in government. And it’s important we have because there’s no doubt we wouldn’t have made the progress we have without us.”

But the cross-party approach still leaves both parties cross. In recent weeks, Cameron was reported to be “of one mind” with Tory MPs who oppose onshore wind, a move which Lib Dem sources say was blocked by Nick Clegg. Davey stresses that “under this coalition government there is no onshore wind cap and the Lib Dems will not be proposing an onshore wind cap at the next election”, but he admits that the argument is on-going.

“Some Conservatives are saying there should be a cap on onshore wind. That doesn’t make sense to me. Onshore wind is the cheapest form of large scale renewable energy at the moment. There is still an awful lot we can do in appropriately located sites. If you put a cap on that and say we can’t have that, what you are saying is either ‘your bills are going to be higher’ – are the Conservatives really promising higher bills? – or it means you’re going to renege on your climate change targets. It’s impossible for them to say anything else.”

If there’s “still an awful lot” that can be done, then how many new wind turbines would the Lib Dems commit to building? “It’s not sensible to have a target,” Davey replies carefully, insisting that he is “not someone who wants to carpet the whole of England in onshore wind, or carpet Scotland for that matter”. However, he argues that it would, “certainly be environmentally irresponsible and economically irresponsible” to resist the construction of onshore wind, even if he wants to “understand people’s reactions against onshore wind in a way which I hope is practical and successful.”

The day before this interview a new poll showed that onshore wind was a far more popular choice than fracking for shale gas, with 62% to 19% preferring a windfarm to drilling. “It didn’t surprise me in the slightest,” Davey states. “I think the Conservatives are on the wrong side of the argument here. Some of their backbenchers, people like Peter Lilley, a senior Conservative, a man I have a lot of time for, I just think he’s wrong on this issue and I think the Conservatives are wrong to pander to a rightwing agenda which is not in the interests of the consumer or the environment.”

Lilley was one of just five MPs to vote against the 2008 Climate Change Act, and remains an unashamedly outspoken critic of the scientists who warn of manmade rising temperatures. There are other voices too: Lord Lawson (see interview on p45) is a leading sceptic, and suggests that Davey is an isolated voice at cabinet. So who speaks out against him?

“No one round the cabinet table, in my hearing, has told me that climate change isn’t happening” Davey quickly replies. But with the new UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warning of the threats posed by rising temperatures to food, security and human kind, sometimes it must feel as though Davey – a firm believer in the scientific evidence of man-made climate change – is banging his head against a brick wall when opponents do make themselves heard.

“No. Because we’re winning. We’ve banged through the wall,” he replies. “I really want to work with all parties on this.”

Lawson, however, won’t be working with Davey, a man he accuses of being excessively emotional in his language.

“I just think he’s wrong,” Davey replies, notably softly-spoken. “It’s not emotional. It’s fact. It’s science. It’s evidence. These are hundreds of scientists from huge numbers of countries that have been peer-reviewed and peer-reviewed. This is the most scientifically credible piece of work in human history. He doesn’t like it but that’s just a fact. I wish Nigel Lawson was right on climate change. It’s just the scientists tell me he’s not. I’m extraordinarily alarmed by the evidence, which is overwhelming. We don’t need flat-earthers trying to pretend this thing doesn’t exist.”

Having vented his anger with the Conservatives, Davey’s attention turns to events in Crimea and the “energy security threat posed by Putin” – further weight, he says, to act on the threat of climate change.

The Russian president, Davey notes, “did his PhD, however many years ago, on Russia using energy to increase its political power, so this is right in the DNA in the leader in the Kremlin – we should absolutely see this for what it is, we shouldn’t be naïve, we shouldn’t think it is going to go away. This is a strategic threat.”

And with a G7 meeting of energy ministers due to take place this month, Davey wants to see a greater focus on raising Europe’s energy independence.

“It flows directly into the climate change agenda. One great thing about renewables, about nuclear, about energy efficiency, is you don’t have to import them. They are home-grown. They provide jobs. And you’re secure,” he argues, calling for “a European strategy, and then global strategy, to say to the Russians, ‘we don’t necessarily need your oil and gas guys, we’re not going to sit here waiting for you. If you are going to try to throw your weight around we’ll go on without you.’”

The reasoning turns to rant, as Davey embraces his monologue:  “By the way Mr Putin, it’s not because we want to do that, we’re very happy to trade with you, but if you are going to breach international law in an unacceptable way, well don’t think we are going to allow you to get away with that. We are going to plan short term, medium term and long term without you.”

In Moscow, it’s unlikely that anyone can hear Ed Davey scream. Back on these shores he has been having more joy with another of his targets: Ed Miliband.

With spats on renewables  reserved for Conservative MPs, the Liberal Democrats have much more in common with Labour on this part of Davey’s brief. “I am prepared to give credit to Ed Miliband on this one,” he admits, praising the Labour leader’s role – as energy secretary – in bringing through the 2008 Climate Change Act, while Davey’s 2013 conference speech notably proposed a working relationship with the Labour leader.

But when discussion moves on to Miliband’s promise to freeze energy bills, Davey raises his voices and begins thumping the nearest piece of furniture available.

“He’s all mouth and no action,” Davey spits. “He had the opportunity to do stuff. Ed Miliband let the country down. He let the fuel poor down. He let energy bill payers down. Because he had the opportunity and he didn’t take it. Miliband’s track record on energy and fuel poverty is scandalously poor. Shame on him.”

Davey fixes me with a wide-eyed look of indignation. The display of aggression jars with his default setting of friendly rationality, but it seems as though we’ll be seeing more of it as the election nears. Because however much Davey denies it, Miliband’s promise to freeze bills was followed by a massive boost in his poll ratings and still remains a popular policy. Two of the big six companies, SSE and EDF, have since promised to keep prices down, while energy regulator Ofgem has called for the Competition and Markets Authority to hold an inquiry into the energy market. Is Davey really arguing that all that would have happened without Miliband’s intervention?

“Completely” he replies. “I don’t think there’s really any serious evidence that that’s what’s driven the changes you have seen in the market. Before he made his speech we had been doing huge amounts on competition and it’s competition that is delivering.”

So no thanks due to Miliband at all?

“No. Labour’s credibility on this issue is nil. Listen, I know he’s got a lot of political credit for that speech but in policy terms it was deeply irresponsible. It is a con. What happens if Russia invades Ukraine and gas prices in Europe rocket and you’ve got a price freeze? Is he going to keep it? He’s not sure. If he keeps it, what will happen? The big players who have big pockets and balance sheets will hold out until the end of the freeze and the small companies will go bankrupt and you’ll reduce competition. It’s an economically illiterate policy.”

Instead, Davey insists that the recent cost announcements “validates everything we have been doing since 2010”, with competition “critical” to challenging the Big Six energy companies.

“Guess what? That is what is being delivered when companies like Ovo cut their energy bills, when companies like SSE are having to announce big freezes. It’s nothing to with Miliband or Labour. It’s to do with three years of hard graft by this coalition. What did he do? He was in power for 14 years. What did he do? Their record on tackling bills for consumers is shocking.”

It’s telling that Ed Davey is occupying the Liberal Democrats’ once favoured position of equidistance: on the one hand, he attacks the Tories’ record on renewables while praising Labour’s stance on climate change, on the other he lambasts Miliband’s energy policies while talking up the coalition’s progress. With his party’s poll ratings still dire, all bets are off as to what state his party will look like after the next election – or who it might have to do business with.

Who knows – it might even be Davey who is doing the deals. As a secretary of state, and with nearly two decades as MP under his belt, Davey is at the forefront of the pack of Lib Dems tipped to succeed Clegg when a vacancy arrives. And on the morning of this interview, Patrick O’Flynn, the Express journalist-turned-UKIP spinner, tweeted that Davey was on manoeuvres. Not surprisingly, he denies the charge.

“Listen – as much as I admire Patrick O’Flynn I don’t recognise what he is saying in the slightest.” If he’s not positioning himself for the leadership, then what is the message to any colleagues who might be? “I think Nick deserves our support. He’s been a fantastic leader, taking us through choppy waters, delivering on Liberal Democrat policies. His record deserves support and he gets my support one hundred per cent.”

So what does he think about Jeremy Browne, Davey’s former government colleague, whose new book – Race Plan – is seen as a critique of the leadership? Will Davey read it?

“If I have time,” he answers with limited enthusiasm. “I’m a good friend of Jeremy’s. He and I talk all about politics and I’ll ask him if there are things he hasn’t told me already that are in the book.”

Such as, perhaps, Browne’s recent comments that the Liberal Democrats are too timid and that, if they didn’t exist, you wouldn’t need to invent them?

“I haven’t seen that and I’m always cautious about reading things out of context” Davey replies. “I personally think liberalism is the strongest political philosophy in the modern world. Socialism has failed. I think even social democracy, the watered down version which Labour sort of understand depending on which day of the week it is, is not very convincing, and I don’t really understand where the Conservatives are coming from because they have so many philosophies within one party. There’s no philosophy of the modern Conservative Party.”

But sometimes a deep philosophy isn’t required to win votes. Nigel Farage’s brand of populism has been enough to take UKIP above the Lib Dems in plenty of polls, not least for the upcoming European elections. When asked what would be a good result for the Lib Dems, Davey aims low. Very low. “We came fourth last time which we were disappointed in. Maybe we’ll come fourth again. I note that in coming fourth we went on to have a brilliant general election result and go into government.”

The Lib Dems could even lose all their MEPs. If they do, would those televised leaders’ debates between Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg have been worth it? Didn’t they just give Farage a free publicity hit?

“He’s had loads of publicity. He didn’t need the debate to give him publicity,” Davey insists, before arguing – against all polling evidence – that the TV head-to-head helped the Lib Dem cause. “It actually has done the party some good. It has shaped the agenda of being prepared to do tough things and being prepared to take the argument on.”

When it’s suggested that the debates only helped the Lib Dem cause because UKIP will benefit at the Conservatives’ expense, Davey refuses to bite, insisting that UKIP’s rise, “hurts my values, hurts my principles, hurts what I stand for.” Notably, however, he refuses to rule Farage out of any televised leaders’ debates next year: “That’s got to be a discussion between the parties and the broadcasters. Above my pay grade.”

So with Farage considered to have won both debates, could Clegg have done anything differently?

“I’d like the argument to go on some of the more emotional things about Europe,” Davey suggests. “Nick was great at making the rational argument, it was exactly the right pitch, but the nearer you get to these things... you have to make the rational argument first of all to give you permission to make the emotional arguments. The anti-European rhetoric has been heard for too long, has been left unchallenged for too long, and resonates in a slightly… populist way. I think the pro-Europeans, as Nick was doing, have got to get out there and make the case as others have not shown the leadership.”

It’s yet another challenge for Ed Davey, on top of those bill battles with Labour, squaring up to the Russian president, and facing down the climate change sceptics. It’s enough to keep anyone awake at night, but not the secretary of state. “I’m not going to pretend I have sleepless nights about it,” he insists, when asked about whether the future of the planet, and what it will look like in his children’s old age, keeps him awake at night. “Frankly if I’m sleeping better I can get on to do the day job.” Far from being tired from the demands of fatherhood, it looks as though the extra adrenalin rush it has given Ed Davey has come at exactly the right time.

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