Dominic Lawson: Your Legacy Isn’t Worth A Trillion Quid, Mrs May

  • Date: 16/06/19
  • Dominic Lawson,The Sunday Times

The prime minister is going down in a blaze of vanity and arrogance

An apology. In a previous column, I gave readers the impression that Theresa May, whatever her faults, was at least not guilty of vanity. How wrong I was: in her last weeks as prime minister she has been single-mindedly determined, as it is described by those around her, to secure her “legacy”. Who, but the PM herself, cares about that? Certainly not voters, none of whom minds which politician gets the credit for what.

Worse, in her haste before her exit from Downing Street next month, May has attempted to sideline the chancellor, who has reasonable concerns about the costs of satisfying her vanity. That is why the Treasury has been frantically leaking the costs of all these various legacy measures, coming up with a figure of more than a trillion pounds.

One of these — the spending of billions more on schools and colleges — is a pet scheme of Boris Johnson. One minister told the Financial Times that the PM was galled by the prospect of her likely successor getting the credit for such spending: “Why should [he] get the benefit of it?” This is a woman wont to lecture her colleagues about the need to put the party first. Whatever one thinks about Johnson, it is obviously in the interests of the Conservative Party that its next leader (whoever he may be) gets what credit there is. He’ll be the one that needs it come the next general election.

But this vanity is trivial compared with May’s announcement (in a press release, not to parliament) committing the country to become “net zero carbon” by 2050. Even if Philip Hammond’s estimate that this will cost “a trillion pounds” is contrived, such a proposal deserves the fullest scrutiny. There is insufficient parliamentary time for this before May’s departure, so she proposes to enact it via a “statutory instrument”, which requires no debate or readings in the two legislative chambers. Add arrogance to vanity.

The Treasury’s figures are based on the business department’s assessment of the cost of completely removing fossil fuels from our energy mix by 2050: it runs at £70bn a year. But as Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Sceptical Environmentalist, points out, the New Zealand government — also contemplating net zero carbon by 2050 — has estimated such a colossal change, amounting to putting the country on a permanent war footing against global warming, would cost 16% of GDP annually. That would equate to £560bn a year if applied to the UK — equivalent to about 70% of current public expenditure.

The advocates of such a policy, especially on the Labour benches, say this is all good extra expenditure as it will create “millions of green jobs”. This is reminiscent of Soviet-style economic planning. It is based on the belief that the only thing that counts is output, and that productivity — actually the only thing that raises living standards — is irrelevant. It is like arguing it is better to build a motorway with spades, rather than mechanical diggers, as that would “create” hundreds of thousands more jobs. Better still, why not supply the workforce with spoons instead of spades? Then we would create millions more jobs. No matter that we would return to pre-industrial penury.

It is true that “renewable energy” has become much more efficient (when the wind blows). But its advocates are ignorant or lying when they insist it is cheaper than, for example, gas. It has gained market share because of thumping subsidies — paid for either by the user or higher taxes. That is why, in April, after the government reduced its subsidies to those using solar power domestically (before the PM discovered what her legacy should be), new installations of solar panels fell by 94%. That figure was supplied to parliament by Rebecca Long-Bailey, Labour’s shadow business secretary, who used it to berate the government for not taking the “climate emergency” seriously.

She did so again when standing in for Jeremy Corbyn at prime minister’s questions a fortnight ago; in the same onslaught she criticised the PM for not doing enough to save British Steel. This would be funny if it were not tragic. It is precisely the policies pursued to “beat climate change” — of which Labour seeks political ownership — that have been closing down our energy-intensive manufacturing. As Nick Timothy — once May’s closest adviser at No 10 — pointed out, in a rebuke to his former boss: “Industrial electricity prices . . . are getting increasingly uncompetitive: in 2010 they were about average for a western economy; now they are 28% more expensive.”

All this time, we have been outsourcing our manufacturing — especially to China. That has enabled the government to congratulate itself on reducing our carbon emissions, and to declare we are “leading the world in the battle against global warming”. It is delusional. All that happens is that we import, for example, the steel we used to manufacture; and, given that China uses much more coal in production than we do, global emissions have actually increased as a result of our de-industrialisation.

As Dieter Helm, professor of energy policy at Oxford, told the BBC’s Today programme last week: “The story for the past 20 years is that in Europe we have been de-industrialising, and we’ve been swapping home production for imports, so even though it looks to the contrary, [our policies] have been increasing global warming.” Then Helm delivered the coup de grâce to John Humphrys: “There are no plans in the net zero carbon target which address that.” Read it and weep.

It is global warming, not UK warming, at issue. And as we are responsible for little more than 1% of CO2 emissions, what happens in Britain is almost irrelevant to the future climate. The economies of China and India are growing at about 6%-8% a year. So in 2030 there will be, in effect, an extra China and an extra India. By that time our emissions, whether they are at the current level or “net zero”, will be still more irrelevant.

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