Stephen Colegrave speaks to Ed Davey, Liberal Democrat Party leadership contender about climate change, green party deals and what will happen if Johnson and Farage form an electoral pact.
Ed Davey is preparing for an election. Not his party’s leadership election, but a general election. He knows that Brexit will be the big issue and the Liberal Democrats need to seize the moment to propel them back onto the centre stage, much like when Davey was a member of David Cameron’s Coalition Government.
One of the burning issues in the next election will be climate change and the environment, especially amongst young voters. Nobody yet knows what the electoral impact will be of the continuing success of Extinction Rebellion as it spawns more boats and protests in more cities and then, of course, there is Greta Thunberg.
In a sense, Davey is an embodiment of these issues. The fact that our Government, especially Environment Secretary Michael Gove, greeted Greta with self-satisfied complacency when she was in London earlier this year, was very much down to Davey’s effective role as Minister for Energy and Climate Change during the Coalition. When he took up office, the UK lagged behind Germany and the rest of Europe in renewable energy. His determination to push through onshore and offshore wind as well as solar power saw green power almost quadruple. The market mechanisms he used to do this slashed the prices – especially for offshore power where the price plummeted from £140 per megawatt hour in 2013 to £57.50 in 2017 – and his innovative policy of subsidy auctions is still in place. The UK now leads the world in offshore wind.
Davey will need to do a deal with the Green Party that helps the electoral maths.
Davey’s approach to green issues differs though from that taken by the Green Party. For him, a much more economic and pragmatic view of combating climate change is necessary. For instance, he is opposed to nuclear power, not because of any principle, but because its true cost versus renewables when decommissioning, and when all other costs are taken into account, make it too expensive.
He sees utilising the market as the best way to wean us off fossil fuels. Indeed, once he had achieved the cost savings in renewables, he argued for subsidies to end. He also sees innovation, especially in battery storage capacity for renewables, as the way to complete total migration to renewables. As seen when he was in government, Davey attracted Siemens and other big payers into the renewable sector and he is keen for big business to play its part – but as part of the market, not because of a moral crusade.
When he left school, Davey saw himself as a green campaigner.
“I read ‘Seeing Green’ by Jonathan Porrit and Schumacher’s ‘Small is beautiful’ between school and college and these had a profound effect on me,” he said.
But, his economics degree, his distrust of the Green Party’s anti-internationalist and anti-business stance, and the ‘Green washing’ of the Tories led him to join the Liberal Party in 1989 – certainly not a major career decision at the time as they only stood at 4% in the polls.
The Green Party can take significant votes away from the Lib Dems in many areas.
With his track record on renewables, Davey seems perfectly placed to do a deal with the Green Party and to reinvigorate the appeal of the centre at a moment when everyone is looking to the centre-ground of politics to rescue us from the two-party system blown apart by Brexit. Especially now that the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas is such a strong advocate of Remain.
The question is, would he and his party really take the initiative to convince the electorate to swing round behind them? If so, Davey will need to do a deal with the Green Party that helps the electoral maths; one which goes further than the Liberal Democrats’ deal at the last election when Caroline Lucas was given a clear run at Brighton and the Green Party agreed not to oppose the Lib Dems at a by-election.
The problem is that, whilst the Green Party can take significant votes away from the Lib Dems in many areas, there aren’t many places where the party withdrawing its candidate would enable the Green Party to win. This is even the case with the increasing Green youth vote, unless Extinction Rebellion manages to create a real mind shift when it renews its major actions in London and across the country on 7 October. Of course, there are other informal deals that can be made with the Remain wings of the main parties, but these will need to be case-by-case.
Hopefully, Davey will not let him get away with a backroom deal.
The big question is how to galvanise the remain vote. Both main parties are split. What happens if Boris Johnson wins the leadership election as expected and does a deal with Nigel Farage to ensure the Brexit vote is unopposed?
Davey is adamant: “Then we would need more than tactical voting. We would need a ‘Remain Alliance’, where candidates stand down across the country to ensure remainers are elected unopposed.”
At the moment, he feels this is only a possibility, but time will tell if Boris Johnson is true to form and does a deal with Farage. The danger is that it will be behind doors and nobody will realise until it is too late. Hopefully, Davey will not let him get away with a backroom deal. The fate of Brexit might depend on it.