Cameron: resolving not to resolve

David Cameron we hear, has now ‘moved to resolve a cabinet row over the UK’s climate change targets’ and there is going to be an announcement tomorrow, (Tuesday). Well done David, you might say, although I have to say that he was in very ambivalent form when answering the Prime Ministers Question I put to him last week on the very subject.  “Will he press for the adoption of [the 4th carbon] budget when the cabinet meets to discuss it?” I asked.  He played a very straight bat, saying ‘we will respond in full to the house on the forth carbon budget. It is very important that we get that right’. Perhaps he wasn’t sure of getting even a partial resolution at the meeting: perhaps he just never answers questions straightforwardly (yes, I know, not the first Prime Minister to do that…..).

Well he’s had the cabinet meeting, and there sounds to be a degree of what you might call ‘resolution’: yes they will sign up to the budget, unless others in Europe drag their feet on emissions, in which case they won’t.  So that’s not exactly resolved then is it? The good news sounds to be that some sort of sign up is to take place, but were you not aware, cabinet, that the Climate Change Act sort of makes the assumption from the word go that future Governments do sign up to carbon budgets? That’s the point of the Act. As the then Opposition spokesperson, Peter Ainsworth said in agreeing to the Bill’s Second Reading in 2008 (almost unanimously supported – three voted against) ‘‘Our view from the outset has been that it should be for the Climate Change committee not politicians to determine the scale of the effort needed”. That’s why the Climate Change Act set up the Committee on Climate Change, and charged it with producing carbon budgets. We are all supposed to agree them.

What is truly worrying about this formulation and its future is not whether David Cameron did indeed ‘resolve’ the row to the extent that he has, but the head of steam that emerged in the cabinet simply to tip this near unanimous consensus out of the window when the going got just a little tough. Even more worrying are the terms in which the argument was couched. Compare and contrast:

  • this line from Vince Cable’s letter to Chris Huhne of 19th April: “Agreeing too aggressive a level risks burdening the UK economy with extra costs which would be detrimental to the UK, undermining the UK’s competitiveness and our attractiveness as a place to do business
  • Leading Climate Change sceptic Peter Lilley in the Climate Change Bill Second Reading debate.  “The Bill  is unilateralist, and just as I was suspicious of unilateral disarmament, I am suspicious of measures that require us unilaterally to incur huge costs, regardless of whether others do likewise”.
  • fellow sceptic John Redwood (on the same day): “It would be foolish if this house were to impose costs and obligations on businesses that are operating in Britain that are not matched by similar obligations elsewhere as that would simply drive business overseas and would not cut our total carbon output”.

Peter Lilley was one of the contrary three in July 2008. John Redwood had the grace to absent himself from the vote.  Now the fringe seems to have been joined the Business Secretary. What is going on?

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