Chris Huhne’s nuclear option: leave it to somebody else

The turbulent take-off of the coalition has thrown up a lot of chaff and created a lot of confusion and cant. Perhaps nowhere is that more the case than in the sponsoring Ministry for hot air, the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

Many energy industry insiders grew nervous as soon as it became clear that the Lib Dems were in line for some Cabinet slots.  Their fears were soon realised when the post was handed to Chris Huhne.

Leaving aside his monstrous ego (he once had a company car which sported the personalised number plate ‘H11HNE’), the immediate worry was that he would simply play favourites, using his position to pick and choose the technologies he favours, rather than dispassionately weighing up the UK’s energy needs.

Since Huhne ran both his unsuccessful leadership campaigns on a greener-than-thou platform, it seemed clear who the winners and losers were likely to be.

This posed a problem for the coalition. How would they balance the Tories’ view that nuclear energy was “the UK’s most significant source of low carbon energy” with Huhne’s that it is a “failed technology” propped up only by lashings of Government cash?

According to sources close to the negotiations, this policy area generated one of the most heated conversations of the pre-nuptials  The line for public consumption was that an accommodation had been reached whereby plans would proceed to allow nuclear new-build to happen, with the Lib Dems abstaining providing no public subsidies went to the nuclear industry.

This clumsy process, with the Lib Dems shouting from the sidelines and waging a guerrilla war to slow down progress is only part of the picture.  The real solution it seems is for Huhne to become a part-time Secretary of State, recusing himself from nuclear policy and leaving all that grubby, unclean stuff to his unfortunate Tory junior, Charles Hendry. This is, to say the least, a bizarre state of affairs.

Take the case of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the quango with the unenviable job of cleaning up after the nuclear industry. The NDA accounts for over half of DECC’s budget, meaning that one of Huhne’s first decisions in office, made to salve his conscience, was to shrug off responsibility for more than50% of his Department’s spend.

Huhne’s choice of special advisers also raises some questions. The senior of the two, Duncan Brack, is, at least at first glance, straight out of Lib Dem central casting: bearded, an active member of the Lib Dem history group, and with a close interest in “environmental crime” and the obscurer details of the logging trade.

While this is all probably a little crude – those who know him well say he is intelligent, sensible and decent – his appointment has done nothing to allay fears that Huhne is far more interested in the green tech aspects of his role – fussing over light bulbs and anaerobic waste digestion – than more mundane things like keeping the lights on.

The junior partner is Joel Kenrick, a young shaver who has latterly been advising the suits at the CBI on low carbon policy and greening transport. However, in his student days (which really weren’t that long ago) he was something of an eco-warrior, protesting, amongst other things, “the offensive trade agenda” pushed by the EU at the WTO, accusing them of “promoting EU corporate interests at the expense of developing countries.”

Although clever – he was a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard – his other main qualification for advising on the complexities of the UK’s energy market seems to be that he once worked, in a very junior capacity, for Chris Huhne.

Inevitably then, eyes are turning towards the centre, to Number 10 and the emerging backroom team there. When nuclear energy came back into fashion under Labour, it was the reclusive Geoffrey Norris – the adviser’s adviser – doing much of the cajoling and arm-twisting.

With the Energy Secretary seemingly foregoing a large part of his brief, will a Norris type figure emerge inside Cameron’s inner office to fill the space vacated by Huhne?

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