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Benedict Brogan: Wind Of Change Sweeping Through Tory Party

For the Conservatives, there is a political bonanza to be had from a re-think on costly green energy. Switching off subsidies for wind farms puts clear blue water between the Tories and the Lib Dems. And if played right, it could put Mr Cameron on the side of a global energy revolution that promises to keep the lights on, lower the cost to voters, and energise his electoral prospects when he most needs it.

There was a palpable surge in Conservative fortunes when David Cameron said “No” to the euro rescue treaty. The public noticed this simple act of defiance. It shone amid the drab worthiness of most government action. Party members in particular delighted in their leader’s sudden outbreak of decisiveness. That “No” sent a positive charge through British politics. It galvanised the troops, put a spring in their step. If only for a moment, Tory hearts beat stronger and dreamed of what might yet be possible.

The good mood didn’t last long. The omnishambles, the Budget U-turns, the sapping effect of Leveson, and most of all the ever-worsening economic crisis wiped out the gains. Mr Cameron is struggling again. Conservatives yearn for red meat policies to please the voters. They want a political Plan B for a Tory majority in 2015 to replace the one based on the assumption of economic recovery and tax cuts that blew up in George Osborne’s hands last year. MPs wondering how to achieve a victory in today’s darkened circumstances want compelling measures that can be described in a few crisp words on the doorstep.

The Chancellor will shortly give them just that. In a few weeks, as part of the Energy Bill, ministers will announce a reduction of up to a quarter in the value of Renewable Obligation Certificates – or “Rocs”. Yes, I realise that’s hardly a sentence to set the pulse racing. But if one considers that Rocs are the means by which the taxpayer subsidises the wind farm industry, and that the Chancellor proposes to slash that giveaway by 25 per cent, then translated into plain English it means this: onshore wind farms will be killed stone dead.

A simple tweak of the financial incentives will halt the march of the turbines across the British landscape. An issue that has poisoned the relationship between millions of affected voters and the politicians who represent them will be resolved. Conservatives will be able to say: “We did that. We stopped the wind farm madness.” No wonder some optimists on the backbenches speak of a defining moment that will give them something to cheer – and be cheered for.

Of course, nothing can ever be quite as simple. Cabinet negotiations are not complete. The politics of so-called green energy remain painfully complex. The legacy of the last government’s enthusiasm for piling burdens on the taxpayer has not been eliminated. In all probability, the industry is not going to give up easily. There are already 3,000 turbines spinning (or, too often, not) across the landscape, with a further 4,500 planned. It may well be that some will sprout where they already have permission, and if the promoters are prepared to press on without a guaranteed income far higher than the market price of the electricity they produce. And while campaigners hope that those new turbines will now be stayed, there is uncertainty about the fate of those already in existence. Will their operators want to keep them if – as a leaked memo from Oliver Letwin, one of the Government’s greenest Tories, indicated this week – the subsidy is not only cut by a quarter straightaway, but eliminated altogether by 2020?

The Government’s about-face on wind farms is the result of greater forces that may change the dynamic of the second half of this Parliament. The first is Mr Osborne’s political decision to shift the Government off its initial enthusiasm for environmental largesse, which he signalled in his speech to Tory conference in October when he declared that Britain was no longer willing to go faster than other EU states in reducing emissions. His intervention made clear that Mr Cameron’s husky-hugging love of all things green has been set aside in the face of the economic storm. He is also acutely aware of the bottom line: voters who have endured steep climbs in the cost of living have had enough of seeing their energy bills rise. The Government is now anxiously searching for ways to mitigate the anger of voters who don’t see why they should pay more for politically fashionable green energies.

Mr Osborne’s new-found scepticism in turn gave his backbenchers permission to step up their efforts against wind farms. Earlier this year, a letter to Mr Cameron drafted by the MP for Daventry, Chris Heaton-Harris, and signed by more than 100 Tory MPs put Downing Street on notice that it faced a major rebellion if it failed to address the issue. Cabinet ministers in recent days have fallen over themselves to assure Mr Heaton-Harris that he has won. His well-marshalled campaign has demonstrated the power of the backbenches and in particular the 2010 intake. He has not only improved his prospects of a ministerial job, but he has also demonstrated that in this Government, power lies increasingly with backbenchers. The challenge for both Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne is to sell this as a moment of leadership. Having surrendered on pasties, charities, static caravans, now wind farms and next Lords reform, they cannot afford to be seen to be meekly following their MPs.

It reflects another force at play, too, which may well transform not just our physical landscapes by making wind farms obsolete, but our economic prospects as well. We saw it in yesterday’s fall in inflation: the price of energy is plummeting. With little fanfare, the discovery of vast reserves of accessible shale gas in the United States and elsewhere is rapidly changing the economics of this sector. Contrary to most predictions of barely five years ago, the US may turn out to be self-sufficient in energy. As a result, it is increasingly likely that the developed world’s reliance on Middle East oil is about to end, with untold consequences for the West’s involvement in the region.

It should also transform our economic competitiveness, as effectively unlimited quantities of relatively clean, cheap gas come on to the market, but only if we embrace a politics of cheap energy, too. Suddenly, all those trendy renewable energies whose success was predicated on an assumption that gas prices would rise inexorably, making them relatively affordable, are left looking like unjustifiable luxuries. Even James Lovelock, the nonagenarian green guru who invented the Gaia thesis, in a Guardian interview last week turned on wind farms as “ugly and useless”, renewable energy schemes as “largely hopelessly inefficient and unpleasant”, and urged Britain to “go mad” for shale.

It is no wonder Mr Osborne wants to get out of his commitments to more expensive renewable energy when he sees around him evidence that the price of traditional fuels are falling through the floor: a Chancellor whose political fate depends on producing growth would be daft to defend rising bills for both households and companies. Cheap money is being thrown at the financial crisis. Cheap energy might be the bonus that gets us going again.

For the Conservatives, there is a political bonanza to be had from this moment. Dismay about wind farms has been particularly acute among the party’s grassroots. It is no surprise that Ukip is making the most of its opposition to turbines. Switching off subsidies for wind farms puts clear blue water between the Tories and the Lib Dems. And if played right, it could put Mr Cameron on the side of a global energy revolution that promises to keep the lights on, lower the cost to voters, and energise his electoral prospects when he most needs it.

The Daily Telegraph, 19 June 2012