Gerard Lyons: Sunak’s task tomorrow. The best way of reducing the deficit is to go for growth.

22 Mar

Dr Gerard Lyons is a senior fellow at Policy Exchange. He was Chief Economic Adviser to Boris Johnson during his second term as Mayor of London.

Rishi Sunak needs to provide context, actions and vision when he delivers his Spring Statement to the House of Commons this week.

Context, so that people can understand the present difficult economic environment and what lies ahead. Actions will be needed to cushion the imminent cost-of-living crisis. And the Chancellor needs to outline a vision, both from a domestic political perspective and to reassure financial markets and investors about the outlook for the economy.

The current context is a difficult one. The war in Ukraine and the associated high level of oil and commodity prices has added to uncertainty, both here in the UK and globally. This will be reflected in the economic forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) that will accompany Sunak’s statement.

At the time of their previous forecast, last October, the OBR was forecasting growth of six per cent and inflation of four per cent this year. Now, depending upon their assumptions, the OBR’s growth forecast could be half and their inflation forecast almost twice as high as then. Hence the increased fear of stagflation – where inflation is higher, and growth lower.

For next year, the OBR will be expecting growth to slow further and inflation to ease. It is their cautious future growth outlook that limits the Chancellor’s room for fiscal manoeuvre. Sunak will also stress that higher inflation and interest rates increases the amount spent on servicing the national debt.

Despite this, the Chancellor should not feel constrained by the OBR’s forecasts into limiting the actions he can take. The margin of error for the budget deficit forecasts has been high in recent years – for obvious reasons, perhaps.

Importantly, the fiscal numbers, while poor, are clearly on an improving trend. During the first ten months of this fiscal year, public sector net debt was £138.5 billion, around half the level of a year earlier. So Sunak may have around £25 billion more to use in this statement than previously expected, and still be able to stick within his fiscal rules. He thus has the opportunity as well as the need to provide some help this week.

What then of the actions that can be taken? There are two areas he should focus on.

One is actions linked to the war, such as more immediate defence spending or help for refugees. The other is finding money to cushion the cost-of-living crisis.

While he may mention issues linked to levelling up and incentives to boost investment and improve skills, the bulk of tax changes and spending announcements linked to these will have to wait until the Budget in the autumn.

The imminent cost-of-living crisis is explained by higher inflation, rising fuel and energy bills, and increased taxes. The approach that the Chancellor is likely to take to address these is best captured by the three “t’s” – timely, temporary and targeted measures.

Even though people across all incomes, including the squeezed middle, are being impacted, help will be targeted to those on low incomes and most in need.

The rise in inflation is out of his control. But we shouldn’t pretend that no-one is to blame. Costs have risen across the board – initially because of supply disruptions triggered by the pandemic and now because of the war. At some stage these pressures will ease, but not yet.

But inflation has also risen because the Bank of England has been asleep at the wheel. Last year, when inflation was already rising, it printed an excessive amount of money as quantitative easing reached £895 billion. That made the inflation outlook worse, feeding inflation expectations.

The Chancellor can act on fuel duties. During the next fiscal year, fuel duties are expected to raise £28 billion. By comparison, income taxes will raise £229 billion and national insurance £182 billion. A bold step would be to suspend fuel duties completely for a period. But then the pain would be felt when reintroduced.

Indications are that fuel duty will be cut, perhaps for a temporary period. A similar approach has been seen recently in France and Ireland.

For example, take a litre of petrol at £1.65. This price includes fuel duty of 57.95 pence and VAT of 27.5 pence. So total tax is 85.45 pence

If fuel duty is reduced by five pence per litre, then, after taking into account VAT, this would reduce the price per litre by six pence, in this case from £1.65 to £1.59. A small but significant saving for many people.

A radical – but very unlikely – step would be to move environmental levies from fuel bills onto general taxation. From this April these levies on household energy bills will raise £9.2 billion over the fiscal year, around £325 per household per year. The importance of addressing climate change is critical, it is peoples’ ability to pay that is the issue. This leads onto the big issue that Sunak needs to address: taxes.

Two tax increases will bite this spring. There is fiscal drag: as pay creeps up it drags people into higher income tax brackets. Normally, this is addressed by allowing tax allowances to rise in line with inflation. Allowances have been frozen for a couple of years, so it is unlikely anything will change here.

The other tax is the increase in national insurance, which will rise for both workers and employers, and which comes into effect in a couple of weeks. For workers this rises from 12 per cent to 13.2 per cent, so someone earning £30,000 per year will pay £214 more and a £50,000 earner will pay £339 more.

In April 2023, this is replaced by a new health and social care level (which in all likelihood will rise in future years) and the national insurance rate falls back to 12 per cent.

There was no need for this tax to have been increased in the first place. It was already clear last autumn that the public finances were improving. Furthermore, it is a tax on jobs that it is coming into effect now when incomes are being squeezed.

Sunak appears keen not to reverse or delay this tax. Instead, he could raise the threshold at which national insurance is paid by workers. From April, national insurance is paid after you earn £190 per week. By contrast, the threshold for paying income tax is based on annual income but is equivalent to £242 per week.

The Chancellor also recently announced measures totalling around £9 billion to help people most in need. He could find other targeted help. For instance, benefits and allowances could be raised in line with latest inflation figures.

One lesson from following fiscal statements over the years is that, when it comes to chancellors, don’t just listen to what they say, watch what they do. During the pandemic, Sunak responded well. Further action is needed now.

Finally, despite uncertainty, it will be important for the Chancellor to outline a vision. The UK’s trend rate of growth is too low. The UK needs to become a more competitive economy. Sunak wants to reduce the budget deficit. That is understandable. His choices are: borrow, raise taxes, austerity via cutting spending, focus on boosting growth – or a combination of these.

Austerity is rightly ruled out, although public sector reform is needed. The trouble is that taxes are already high, even for people on modest incomes. The best way to reduce the deficit is to boost economic growth, allowing the ratio of debt to GDP to come down gradually, over time.

Anthony Browne: Now is not the time to go slow on Net Zero

21 Mar

Anthony Browne is MP for South Cambridgeshire, and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Environment.

Does the invasion of Ukraine – and the commodities price crisis that it has exacerbated – mean we should “press pause” on Net Zero? Gas and petrol prices have rocketed up in the past few weeks, increasing the cost of heating and driving, and causing real financial pain to households, particularly those on lower incomes. The Government has unleashed a £9 billion package to bring bills down, but there is a limit to how much it can buck global markets. The call has come for further action – in particular, to start fracking in the UK again.

I fundamentally disagree that Net Zero needs to be paused. Many of the arguments put forward are not just self-serving, but patently irrational. If they were acted upon, we would be repeating rather than learning from the mistakes of the 1973 oil price shock.

I have always seen three major reasons for aiming for net zero – one is to curb climate change, and the other two are to enhance national security and to improve economic resilience.

Weaning ourselves off fossil fuels – which is completely achievable – is not only critically important for the environment, but would mean that we would no longer be funding and dependent on some of world’s worst authoritarian regimes, and the change would make our economy more resilient against volatility in global energy prices.

In 1973, a six day war in the Middle East produced an oil price shock that unleashed explosive inflation and a deeply scarring recession, sending our economy into turmoil for nearly 20 years. That is a critical weakness on an otherwise powerful, diverse economy.

Our economy is less dependent on oil prices now than it was – the energy intensity of GDP has fallen – but we are still vulnerable, as we are experiencing.

After 1973, other countries had deliberate strategies to wean themselves off oil – France went for nuclear power, Denmark for wind power, and Japan for solar. By contrast, we went for North Sea 0il. But since our output is part of global markets, that did nothing to insulate us from global price shocks.

We have more recently boosted renewable energy. Few people realise that more of the UK’s national electricity supply is now produced from wind power than it is from gas. No foreign dictator can stop the wind from blowing on these shores. The fact that over half our electricity comes from zero carbon sources (wind, solar and nuclear) means that its price has been less volatile than if it was produced solely from oil and gas, whose prices are decided by highly volatile international markets.

France, where nuclear power generates three quarters of electricity, and Norway, which is 100 per cent hydroelectric, have suffered from electricity price spikes, but only because they have been exporting power other countries which are vulnerable.

North Norway, which is isolated from the main European power networks, has seen more stable electricity prices from its hydroelectric plants. Two thirds of Norway’s homes are warmed by electric heat pumps, and so are not directly affected by global gas prices.

The UK could produce more fossil fuels, but the UK cannot much influence international oil and gas prices, whether it fracks or not. For as long as our heat and light and transport depend on fossil fuels, we will still be at the whim of international markets. 

But imagine if all our (and Europe’s) electricity production were from zero carbon sources – renewables and nuclear – and if we drove electric vehicles, and had electric heating for homes, then homeowners and drivers would be more insulated from international energy price movements and no longer funding foreign dictators.

The answer to the current crisis is more people driving electric cars, and less electricity produced from fossil fuels – not pressing pause on Net Zero, producing more fossil fuels and doing less to get people to drive electric cars and heat their homes with electricity.

That would simply exacerbate the problem, not solve it. You won’t make the UK less hostage to global fossil fuel prices by making the UK more dependent on fossil fuels. We need to learn from 1973, not repeat the mistakes.

As we get to Net Zero by 2050, there will still be a continued demand for oil and gas as transition fuels, and there will be some residual demand afterwards for industries such as chemicals.

Where that fuel comes from is less an environmental issue than a security one. Since Russia only supplies four per cent of our gas, it is not really an issue for the UK: giving the go-ahead to the wind farms and solar farms already in the pipeline will more than make up for the shortfall from Russia.

The energy gap is more an issue for the EU, which is heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas. If Europe stops buying fossilsfuels from Russia, it will have to buy them from elsewhere, but that does not in any way mean it needs to stop aiming for Net Zero.

The Russian invasion in Ukraine is not a reason to give up on Net Zero. Rather, it is a reason to redouble efforts to get there as quickly as possible.  That will benefit the environment, economic resilience and national security.

 

James Kirkup: Sunak’s task next week. To get cash into the hands of those who need it. And launch an energy efficiency mission.

17 Mar

James Kirkup is Director of the Social Market Foundation.

Perhaps it’s because now, as then, I have Covid, but when I ponder Rishi Sunak’s approaching Spring Statement, my thoughts go back to March 2020. Then, Sunak made his bones with the British public with nerveless statements about the support he’d offer for an economy – and a population – teetering on the brink of panic.

Those early days of his chancellorship seem a long time ago now: it’s been a long two years. But there’s a lot to learn from those moments, even if both economics and politics have changed since then.

Then, the dominant issue was a pandemic that would prove to be longer and more serious than most people realised. Today, the same is true of what Westminster calls the “cost of living crisis”.

That phrase is so familiar that a lot of people who use it think that it’s old news – that everyone out there “up and down the country” knows full well how much prices will rise and real incomes will be squeezed.

Well, if they think that, they’re wrong. Rising prices, especially on energy, are still going to come as a nasty shock to a lot of voters. Just because us media and political types know something will happen, don’t assume the wider public does too.

So the first job for next week’s not-a-Budget statement is ruthless honesty about what’s coming – and the limitations of what the state can do, in the short term, about energy prices.

That doesn’t mean doing nothing. The compassionate, responsible response to rising prices should be to concentrate help on those who need it most. That should start with benefits uprating. As things stand, benefits will rise by 3.1 per cent in April, because that’s what CPI inflation was in September. But it’s now at 5.5 per cent and will likely exceed six per cent for the rest of the year.

If Britain really is One Nation, not two, then preventing a deep real-terms cut in the incomes of the poorest should be a priority for Sunak next week.

There’s more to do, of course. Current plans for a £150 council tax rebate for most homes and what amounts to a £200 loan towards energy bills are both over-complex and poorly targetted.

Instead, HMT could simply give £500 to every benefit-claiming household, and £300 to non-benefits households where no-one pays higher rate tax. That wouldn’t cost any more than the current plans: the SMF proposal would cost around £8.4 billion, pretty much the same as existing measures.

Simplicity and speed are key here. What’s needed is a return to the spirit of furlough: just get cash into the hands and accounts of people who need it.

And some people who don’t: the Treasury’s natural objections to the waste involved in universal payments are normally reasonable, but these – still – are not normal times. The strong and natural desire to declare that the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic have passed should not blind us to the fact that Russia’s war on Ukraine is another event of arguably even greater historical significance.

And that offers something of an opportunity, for a politician big enough to seize it. Here’s how Sunak can do so next week.

The immediate and obvious impact of Russian aggression on British lives is via energy. Even though we buy relatively little fossil fuel directly from Russia, we’re still exposed to international prices that are directly and badly susceptible to Russian malfeasance.

Hence the various Government schemes afoot to reduce that exposure: some more wind power, some more extraction from the North Sea, and some wishful thinking about the Saudis and others agreeing to pump more to prices down.

The remarkable thing about all these efforts is ministers almost totally ignoring the best path to reducing British exposure to international energy prices and so easing household energy bills: use less energy.

This is Sunak’s opportunity, though he’ll have to override Treasury orthodoxy and his own inclinations to take it.

By any international standard, Britain’s homes are poorly insulated and badly energy inefficient. This is one of those big, slow and boring national problems that successive governments have nibbled at then pushed aside over several decades.

There are many reasons for this. Voucher schemes are hard to design and easy to exploit: the people most likely to use them would probably have made home improvements anyway. There are always sexier, more immediate things to promise, which are more likely to pay off in time for the next election. No one wants to be the politician telling people to clear their lofts out and fill their wall cavities. Lagging is boring.

More recently, the Treasury has been resisting energy efficiency drives on the grounds that UK industry can’t deliver: not enough workers, not enough material, inadequate supply chains to provide it.

None of these problems is imaginary. But none is insurmountable, to someone with adequate ambition and understanding of how markets work.

The ultimate reason British energy efficiency schemes have failed over decades is a lack of consistency. No policy has stood for long enough to provide confidence and certainty, either to households or industry. The evidence from successful efficiency policies worldwide — New Zealand, Japan, the Netherlands, to name a few – shows that what’s needed above all is the long-term certainty that only strong government policy can offer.

And that’s what Sunak should offer next week: nothing less than a national mission to make Britain’s homes more energy efficient. That mission will take a decade and more, and should be put above party politics: the Chancellor should make a Big Tent offer to Labour to sign up to his aims.

Importantly, this can all be done without so much as mentioning the words Net Zero. The Chancellor’s public ambivalence on climate issues is regrettable, but might not hurt at all here. The best way to get the public to buy in to the national energy efficiency mission isn’t to talk about carbon foregone but pounds saved. The difference between Energy Efficiency Certificate Bands C and D is around £100 per year. And that’s a recurrent saving: who wouldn’t fancy £1000 more in their pocket over the next decade?

This doesn’t all have to be state provision, incidentally. Some banks and building societies are gagging to lend to households to fund home efficiency measures. The Chancellor should use his bully pulpit to egg them on, and prod the rest to do more.

This advice isn’t original or novel, because the energy efficiency issue is a longstanding one that hasn’t really changed. What has changed are the times.

Britain may not be a direct combatant in Russia’s war, but we face wartime economic impacts. That requires a response of similar scale, a great national effort to defend our homes and incomes from unnecessary over-exposure to international energy markets. If he wants to be

the leader of this decade, Rishi Sunak should use his statement next week to launch that unabashedly patriotic drive for energy efficiency, declaring loudly and proudly that it’s time to Lag for Victory.

Garvan Walshe: To turn the tide in Ukraine, it’s time for Putin – not the West – to fear escalation

17 Mar

 Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative party

“Don’t you now there’s a war on?!” would be the best paraphrase of Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s incredulity at Poland and the United States not being able to organise a way of supplying MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine’s embattled air force.

Ukraine fights on – alone – now beginning a fourth week against the invading Russian army and air force. They’re giving it everything they’ve got, paying a huge price for Vladimir Putin’s aggression, and our failure to take the Russian threat seriously since 2014.  Despite Ukrainians’ heroic resistance, we still haven’t fully made the shift in mindset that, even more than actual fighting, characterises the move from peace to war.

The Home Office hasn’t understood that a bureaucracy built up over years to deter refugees needs to be taken apart. Germany says it will reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas, but not yet.  Israel sits on the fence while a country with a Jewish president is targeted for destruction.  Defence ministries everywhere cavil about supplying Ukraine “defensive”, as opposed to “offensive” weapons. 

But there’s another even more serious mistake that is still being committed: to think avoiding escalation is more important than achieving victory.

“Escalation dominance” is the mind game by which Putin has, in Zelenskiy’s words, “hypnotised” the West. Don’t do anything that will make it harder for me to beat Ukraine, he says – or else.

Fear of provoking Putin is a major reason why Ukraine has not been equipped with modern air defences, overt Western training missions have left the country, and there are no Western forces there. Would Putin have invaded had there been an American, or even a Franco-British, garrison in, say, Kharkiv? The answer doesn’t start with ‘y’.

In line with Soviet doctrine, Putin has turned his sabre-rattling nuclear. Avoiding “World War Three” is the reason given for ruling out NATO troops in Ukraine; discarding a no-fly zone, and even failing to send over those MiGs.

“We can’t fight Russia” said the Prime Minister. But if we can’t fight Russia in Ukraine, why could we fight them in Poland, the Baltic States or even Germany? Would that not also be World War Three, with the same, or possibly greater, risks of nuclear escalation?

The logical conclusion of this line of thinking is that NATO’s security guarantees can’t work, and that a nuclear-armed Russia cannot be stopped. Yet during the Cold War we learned how to make the USSR stop and think, because we understood how to make sure that the threat of escalation wouldn’t pay.

The most important word in the last sentence is ‘pay’. How can Putin be convinced, as a succession of Soviet leaders, including Stalin, were, that escalation isn’t worth it?

We need to start with Putin’s notion of worth, which is not irrational, but is a little different from the kind of rationality that dominates Western thinking. We think of worth as an absolute quantity. If we’re going for a run, what matters to us is the time in which we complete it. He thinks of it as a relative quantity. It doesn’t matter how long he takes, as long as he takes less time than anyone else.  Another way of putting it is that he doesn’t care so much about being rich as about being first. 

This means we need to threaten to do more to him than he has to threaten to do to us to force a change in behaviour. We would abandon a course of action if it left us worse off than we are at the moment. He would still choose to take the hit, as long as the hit we suffered was heavier. This creates a well known paradox: to prevent his escalation we not only need to be able to match his escalation, but need to convince him there’s a realistic possibility that we could escalate further.

Because we have projected our own psychology onto him, our apparently responsible statements – that we won’t send troops in or establish a no-fly zone, and so on – embolden Putin rather than reassuring him of our intentions.

We need instead to re-establish our credibility.  A first step is a return to some rhetorical ambiguity: we need to signal that measures which would amount to war, such as a no-fly zone or the deployment of combat forces in Ukraine should now be under consideration.  He, not we, needs then to consider whether that war would be worth fighting.  

Second, we should take steps to show that even if a no-fly-zone or ground troops are only possibilities, we will strengthen our support for Ukraine. Yesterday’s announcement that Soviet-design anti-aircraft missiles, which Ukraine can operate immediately, will be sent in is an important first step.

But the main danger to Ukrainian cities and civilians is from artillery, not aircraft.  Ground attack drones, “loitering munitions” (very small drones) and radars to detect where artillery is fired from will be of greatest use.  But if Russia is to be deterred from escalating, it needs to understand that we, too, are willing to take some risk.

When the Soviet Union cut off Berlin, the United States, Britain and France responded with the Berlin airlift. These days it is Mariupol that is besieged, and its civilian population the subject of Aleppo-style shelling. As well as providing Ukraine the weapons to destroy that artillery, could we not consider an escorted airlift of air-dropped humanitarian supplies into the city? Russia could try and engage the planes escorting the aid, but would they really shoot at British, French or American aircraft?

A Mariupol airlift would not be without risk, but it’s less risky than a Russian victory.

John Redwood: My critique of the Chancellor’s Mais Lecture, and what the Government should do next

7 Mar

Sir John Redwood is MP for Wokingham, and is a former Secretary of State for Wales.

Amidst all the harrowing reports from Ukraine and the deaths and destruction wrought there by Russia, the Chancellor has sought to chart a course for the economy for the next couple of years.

In his Mais lecture he echoed his predecessor, Philip Hammond, in seeking a productivity breakthrough. He also reaffirmed the Maastricht rules approach to economic management, wanting tax rises to get the deficit down first. The Treasury should note that its role model the EU has abandoned these rules for the time being, and is pursuing monetary and fiscal expansion.

The lecture was wrong to deny that lower tax rates can bring in more revenues. The Republic of Ireland has been a shining example of this, boosting its per capita GDP far higher than ours or the lower level of the  EU by attracting huge investments through a 12.5 per cent Corporation Tax rate.

Their business taxes offer a higher percentage of total tax take than our higher rates. The Chancellor ignores the findings of Margaret Thatcher and Nigel Lawson who he praises. They produced a surge in revenues from higher paid people by major cuts in income tax rates.

The Government should take the cost of living crisis more seriously. In accordance with the Mais lecture, it needs to create the conditions for private sector investment in creating more better-paid jobs and in producing more of the goods and services we need at home.

Levelling up needs to be private sector led, and offer people the chance to set up and run their own businesses, be trained for better paid employment, and find ladders of opportunity in the areas attracting the projects and businesses.

The Government should not take the fast growth rate of 2021 for granted. It was a one-off based on removing Covid restrictions and on an unprecedented injection of money by the Treasury and the Bank of England. In the end, they overdid it in scale and duration, triggering a nasty inflation. The new investment has to take place against a less supportive public sector background.

The rise of prices well above wages will cut growth, as people spend more of their money on such basics as food and energy. That will leave them with less to spend on leisure and pleasure – on items that are nice to have. The huge rise in energy bills alongside tax rises including National Insurance will sap spending power further. The economy will slow. The lecture did not tell us how the extra private sector investment will be attracted in these conditions, particularly with the planned rises in Corporation Tax to come.

These troubles will be compounded by the Government’s import promotion policies, which are most pronounced in the Business and Agriculture departments. Business is busy allowing the rundown of big energy using manufacture like steel, ceramics, aluminium, and glass in the name of Net Zero.

The trouble is that we then import the products from abroad, meaning that more C02 is created in their production and transport to us. The Business Department is busy reducing our oil and gas output so that we need to import more energy. Again, this adds to our CO2 production worldwide.The Environment Department is developing big subsidy incentives to remove land from food production and to encourage older farmers to give up. That will make us more dependent on imported food.

So why does the Government not like products made or grown at home? Why doesn’t it want more home output to boost jobs, incomes and lifestyles? Any sensible programme of levelling up should be cutting taxes and making it easier for local businesses and farms to set up and grow.

This year, revenues have come in much higher than the Budget forecast, thanks to higher growth – and way higher than the £12 billion that the Government says it needs for a tax rise. The Treasury did not put up rates of tax, so revenue grew. During the next financial year, higher tax rates and frozen starting levels will hit taxpayers hard. Revenue is likely to underperform as growth stutters.

An energy shortage is a big part of the problem. The government should ease the shortages of gas, oil and electricity. They should invite in the oil and gas producers in the U.K. and help them increase production straight away from current fields. They should offer licences for new production from all those new and extended fields that have already been discovered. That’s more jobs, better paid jobs, and plenty of extra tax revenue. It is also less CO2 generated globally, as our own gas produces under half the CO2 of imported LNG gas. We will have much more productive industry if we have cheap or competitive energy.

The Government should work with the electricity industry to keep the lights on. We  will need more capacity than is planned to cover the electric revolution. We need more power for when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. We should abandon the current policy of putting in more and more interconnectors to allow us to import more from an energy short continent.  They should produce schemes to promote more home-grown food.

Defence, energy, food. Ten ways in which this war should change Government policy and the way we live.

7 Mar

None of the below will happen in the straightforward event of an imminent coup in Russia.  Nor perhaps in the more subtle one of a ceasefire soon, followed by eased sanctions and a negotiated peace.

But most of it will take place in the event of a longer war, and much of it should have happened anyway.  Here are ten ways in which politics is set to change.

First, defence policy.  It’s a statement of the obvious that defence spending will rise – at the expense of budgets elsewhere, further complicating Rishi Sunak’s calculations.   But as important as the percentage by which it will rise is how it will rise.

Russia was named as “the most acute direct threat to the UK” in last year’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy.  Now the Government will have to react on the basis of that judgement, and review the review itself.

That should mean a larger army, a focus on our European hinterland, and no more naval adventures in the South China sea.  “Putin’s Russia is closer to home – remember the Salisbury attack – and Islamist extremism is already here,” as I wrote at the time of the AUKUS deal.

This site has been singing the same song since the review was published, and before (see here, here, here and here – “The Conservatives risk obsession with China to the exclusion of other threats, including Russia and Islamist extremism”).

The last may fade away in public consciousness, which would bring its own dangers with it. The second knock-on effect of the war will be on energy policy.  To pick up on another theme familiar to ConservativeHome readers, Government policy will need a much greater stress on security of supply.

Which means extracting more of our own oil and gas as a bridge to more nuclear and renewables.  That might not affect the second leg of the energy policy stool, lower electricity prices.  But it will have have an impact on the third, carbon emissions.

As this war gathers pace, it is looking harder for us to hit Net Zero by 2050, though I’m sceptical about that timetable in any event. Next, food.  Agriculture policy will always seek to strike a balance between consumers and producers, and in the wake of Brexit we now have more scope to adjust.

To date, the tilt has been towards consumers, with less farmer subsidy (“mine are doing their nut”, one Minister told me yesterday) and more countryside rewilding.  That is going to have to change, which will have an effect on trade policy.

Deals with Commonwealth friends and allies  – Anne-Marie Trevelyan has just agreed one with New Zealand – have implications for domestic production, no less than those with other countries.  And a lesson of Covid should be that one cannot rely on supply chains to deliver as planned.

Which will mean a switch from just-in-time to just-in-case.  Then there is the exposure of universities to Russian and Chinese influence.  The sanctions in placed are already poised to snarl up science partnerships with counterparts in the Putin-led state.

There will be protests, for good reason and bad.  It will be argued that many Russian academics are opposed to the war, and that collective punishment is a bad thing.  That argument will have wider resonance as the effects of sanctions kick in.

But read Tom Tugendhat on this site, writing about the universities’ dependence on Chinese overseas students, or elsewhere on the need for a register of China’s interests in the UK.  A Counter-States Threats Bill was promised in the Queen’s Speech.  Ministers will need to speed up getting it before Parliament.

Next, immigration and asylum.  Taking more refugees from Ukraine, as they flee West from the war, will have an effect elsewhere – since public opinion will always back, as it must, control on overall migration numbers.  Watch out for the tangling-up of Ukrainian refugees and small boats.

Voters won’t long tolerate the opening-up of legal routes if illegal ones run out of control (as the traffic across the channel already has).  How many who seek help from the gangmasters will be from Ukraine?  Or from Afghanistan – in the wake of last summer’s disaster?

How many who arrive will claim to be, whether they actually are or not?  Pondering the European landscape takes one to our relations with the EU.  Liz Truss was invited to and attended a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council last week.  That’s a sign of easing tensions, as Europe and America close ranks.

It may even be possible in this improving atmosphere to recast or minimise the Northern Ireland Protocol, although I’m doubtful – since the theology of the EU requires stringent checks at the sea border to guard against the non-existent threat to the internal market.

But either way, don’t expect Article 16 to be moved any time soon (will will bring its own risks, as indeed would moving it, during the run-up to this spring’s election to the Northern Ireland Assembly).  There are conceivable effects on the debate about devolution and independence.

Scottish independence ought to be a less attractive option in a more dangerous world – and Ministers can be expected to make that argument as they continue to develop the UK’s internal market.  Meanwhile, expect the UK to work more vigorously through European institutions.

Writing on this site recently, David Lidington named “the Northern Group that brings together the NATO members and partner countries that border the Baltic and the North Sea”, the E3 (France, Germany and the UK) and “the party too European Intervention Initiative that brings together EU and non-EU countries”.

Boris Johnson issued a statement last week in the wake of a meeting of the Joint Expeditionary Group, whose members are the UK, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands and Iceland.  The Group has previously carried out its own military exercises.

Then there is the economy.  I’ve already referred to a higher defence budget necessitating a spending squeeze elsewhere.  There are those who believe it isn’t necessary: that the Government should cut taxes, go for growth and let borrowing take the strain.

Up to a point: Jacob Rees-Mogg hinted in our last Moggcast that government ought to be able to find the £12 billion of annual savings for the next three years that would render the coming National Insurance rise unnecessary.  But Sunak’s take on history and the economy in his Mais Lecture was sound.

Namely, that the economic recovery of the 1980s came off the back of lower interest rates, secured in the 1981 budget by tax rises, not cuts.  The lesson of the era is that tax cuts and spending control march in step – one that we may have to learn all over again at a time of stagflation, as growth slows and shortages send prices rocketing.

There will be pressure for the City to be less open to dirty money, which the institutional Treasury will try to resist as best it can, and a squeeze on the levelling-up project.  That takes us finally to culture – and, no, I don’t just mean the “sporting and cultural Siberia of its own making” which Nadine Dorries referred to last week.

The last fortnight has seen the contention that Putin’s aggression has been encouraged by Western decadence discussed vigorously.  That’s a bigger theme than the conclusion of an article can tackle.

Though the progress of Putin’s war, or perhaps the lack of it, ought to give pause for thought.  At any rate, apologists for dictatorship are getting a hard time.  That’s a change for the better.

Rachael Finch: Net Zero and energy security. If we go too fast for the first, we won’t get the second. Indeed, we may get neither.

4 Mar

Rachael Finch is a former British Army Officer and works in the defence sector. She is currently a Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Women’s Organisation West Midlands.

When Russia is negotiating with Western countries over the crisis in Ukraine, it is doing so knowing it is in control of 41 per cent of the EU’s gas supply. Having also built up its foreign currency reserves to defend itself from Western sanctions, and with no Western political appetite to commit troops to the crisis, Moscow is in a strong position.

In the long-term, Henry Smith, writing for this website, is likely right: Net Zero, by reducing dependence on natural gas, will weaken Russia’s position.

However, in the short-to-medium-term, the transition to Net Zero will transform geopolitics before a world powered by green energy can take shape. When we consider that almost 60 per cent of Russia’s exports comprise petroleum or coal products, it’s hardly surprising that Vladimir Putin is not the world’s most vocal environmental campaigner.

Consequently, the UK Government needs to look beyond the long-term environmental challenges of global warming, and address the nearer-term geopolitical risks that are present. Geopolitical risks create uncertainty in energy markets as reliability is questioned, pushing up prices for consumers and creating resistance to Net Zero goals.

The move away from oil and gas as sources of power will not happen overnight, and during this period, petrostates will continue to profit from their exports of fossil fuels. However, the combination of pressure on investors to divest from carbon-based fuels and the uncertainty about the future of fossil fuels may result in declining investment in oil and gas.

If oil supplies fall faster than oil demand as a consequence, fuel shortages and higher and more volatile oil prices will be here to stay for a while. Notably, the current increase in UK gas prices is due to a drop in gas supply at the same time as an increase in demand.

Higher oil prices result in higher revenues for petrostates such as Russia, or Saudi Arabia. In addition, as the transition to so-called clean energy develops, the overall reduction in the demand for oil combined with the need to keep costs as low as possible may result in higher-cost producers, such as Canada, being priced out of the market. This leaves room for states that produce cheaper oil, such as Saudi Arabia, to fill the gap increasing their geopolitical clout.

The same logic applies to gas markets. And for Europe, this means an increasing dependence on Russian gas: Russia’s importance to Europe will increase in the short-to-medium term if the Nord Stream 2 pipeline eventually comes online. If Putin wants to push back against the expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe, now is a good time for him to do it.

However, it’s not only fossil fuel exports that could increase Moscow’s geopolitical clout. According to the International Energy Authority, global nuclear energy generation will need to double between now and 2050 if the world is to achieve net zero emissions by the same date.

Many of the nuclear reactors planned or under construction outside Russia are being built by Russian companies. China is also a relatively large investor in nuclear power, meaning that both Moscow and Beijing will increasingly be able to influence industry norms and impose global standards in their favour.

China also controls many inputs required for clean energy technology, dominating both mining and the processing and refining of critical minerals, such as copper, cobalt, lithium, nickel and rare earth metals. An increase in the demand for clean technology will further increase China’s geopolitical influence. China has previously shown its ability to (mis)use this influence when it blocked the export of critical minerals to Japan in 2010 over the disagreement about the East China Sea. It could do so again.

It may seem as though localising supply chains is a way to fix these tensions. Despite the Green Party’s utopic advocacy for reducing emissions in the UK’s imports to zero, the reality is a net-zero global economy will need large supply chains for components, products and global trade in low-carbon fuels and minerals.

Global competition is needed to encourage innovation and to develop new markets, reducing prices for consumers. But, increasing electrification, be it for vehicles or heating, will likely result in more local production due to the difficulties with transporting electricity over long distances. Although local supply chains can be beneficial for security and employment reasons, too much localisation reduces diversification, creates vulnerabilities and raises prices for UK consumers.

Moreover, China’s recent increased use of ‘home-grown’ coal as an energy source is driven in part by the shortage of gas on global markets and the need for more energy security. Germany has also found itself in a similar position after its ban on nuclear power. Localising power supply chains doesn’t necessarily result in a reduction of carbon emissions.

Decarbonisation also poses problems for developing countries. The COP26 highlighted this with lower-income countries calling for developed nations to pay for historical damage allegedly caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Whether you agree with this statement or not, developed and developing nations have diverging future goals which will increase tensions. The latter need growth to raise their populations out of poverty in the most economically efficient way. The former, by trying to stop the use of fossil fuels to deal with global warming, are preventing this happening. When the reality of life is a diesel-generator backed power grid that keeps blacking out, an electric car is not a sought after item.

For many developing countries, the way out of poverty may involve extracting hydrocarbon resources. However, developed nations are putting pressure on financial institutions not to support extractive projects, but by not assisting with an alternative, the tensions will grow.

China, on the other hand, is providing finance to countries like Cote d’Ivoire, helping to develop their extractive industries and by doing so is feeding internal Chinese demand for raw materials. As far as many developing countries are concerned, rolling back globalisation could do far more damage in relieving poverty and living standards than continued global warming.

The transition to a world powered by clean energy is radical and it will be messy. If, on the way to achieving Net Zero, national energy security conflicts with responses to global warming, there is a real risk of friction on the road to a green planet.

International climate leadership needs to mitigate the national security implications of a transition to green energy, in addition to making promises and signing agreements. Nuclear power and continuing investment in oil and gas reserves are essential tools in dealing with energy market volatility and the inevitable periods of disconnect between supply and demand of fuels; it’s good to see the government beginning to recognise this.

Supply chains need to be diversified to reduce reliance on one main provider – competitive markets are essential in this regard, as well as keeping prices lower for the UK consumer. And there will be a need to support communities dependent on fossil fuels, both domestically and internationally.

New green technologies will solve technical problems, but they will also encourage states to maximise their own interests and policymakers would be naive not to recognise this. However, perhaps the greatest risk of Net Zero is that if the conflict between global warming and national security is ignored, that the transition to a greener planet won’t take place at all.

Steve Baker: Wanted – a politically and economically viable path to low emissions

23 Feb

Steve Baker is MP for Wycombe, and served as a Minister in the former Department for Exiting the European Union.

No serious person doubts that CO2 is a greenhouse gas or that human emissions of it have contributed to our changing climate. Our legal target of Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 is water under the bridge, nodded through without a division in parliament despite the scale of the implied changes to all our lives.

I admit I will miss petrol engines, especially in motorcycles, but I have no in-principle objection to Net Zero – other than that there has never been a democratic choice about a policy which means, as our Chief Scientist, Patrick Vallance, wrote in the Guardian, “transformation is required at every level of society”.

My objections are practical questions about how we get there – questions usually evaded by turning back to what we ought to do and why, or by doubling down on misinformation. That can’t go on because socially, economically and politically-unviable policies will not survive contact with the public.

Our current energy crisis is substantially a result of the emissions reduction policies of previous governments, particularly Tony Blair’s. Blair changed course away from the gas and nuclear path established by Conservative governments, which had reduced prices while cleaning up electricity generation and domestic heating. Blair’s renewables drive, which was maintained by all subsequent administrations, has left the UK critically exposed to the regional price of gas, because it is natural gas alone which ultimately guarantees security of supply for the UK electricity network.

It’s rational to have a climate policy, but our climate policies aren’t rational. Our acute crisis is a result of chronic, long-term strategic extremism in energy and climate policy. Policy which has been naïve about geopolitical realities, too inflexible, too dogmatic, too hasty and far too expensive.

Just as with our Covid response, the root of our problems is a failure to conduct robust cost–benefit analysis while focussing too narrowly on a particular problem.

Economists can value the harm done to human welfare by emitting a tonne of carbon dioxide – the Social Cost of Carbon. Estimates vary, but most think it is somewhere between £10 and £40. So if reducing emissions by a tonne costs over £40, we are probably doing more harm to human welfare than the climate change we are trying to prevent.

That is, above £40 per tonne the cure is worse than the disease. Worryingly, nearly all our climate policies are significantly more expensive than the social cost of carbon. Onshore wind costs over £100 per tonne and offshore over £200. Rooftop solar can cost over £1000 per tonne.

In 2009, the then government stopped using Social Cost of Carbon, and switched to what is a called a “Target Consistent” value, which is the price that will have to be paid to meet the target. That is, government stopped considering the overall welfare of the population, focussing instead on meeting the targets.

That change is even more important now we have a Net Zero target. By neglecting the already strained budgets of British households and by loading the public with more and more ambitious targets – for renewables, and heat pumps, for EVs, you name it – ministers have put climate policies on a collision course with socio-political reality.

We are seeing the first signs of public resistance now, and the situation will not improve on our present course. A rational policy for reducing emissions must deal with runaway cost problems, growing concerns about security of electricity supply and pressure on business competitiveness.

The cost to consumers of the renewables drive now stands at around £14 billion a year, around £500 per household. Most of that is subsidies, but the cost of dealing with the intermittency of wind and solar is also rising alarmingly. Despite that vast expenditure, once one sets aside incorrect claims which could amount to misinformation, hopes that renewables would become significantly cheaper have been disappointed. The industry claims their capital and operating costs are falling, but their financial accounts tell a different story. And there is a large queue of renewables operators with rights to extraordinary, index-linked levels of subsidy.

On our current path, there is no scenario in which energy prices return to normal in the next decade. It’s anyone’s guess when this unsustainable position will end but end it must. In the short term, we must cut the multi-billion pound cost of green levies, and admit they have not succeeded and bring these programmes to an end.

We will also need a different medium and longer term approach, reducing emissions but being realistic about what can be engineered at reasonable cost to the British people. We need to think a little less about the targets, and much more about what people can afford.

That leads us to a strategic gas-to-nuclear policy, not all that different from the sound Conservative energy policies inherited by Tony Blair and trashed. Government must allow people to go on using their gas boilers for longer, perhaps mixing in hydrogen, and not force the adoption of heat pumps. The drive to EVs should be relaxed: Government is demanding too much too quickly.

Ministers should restore confidence in North Sea oil and gas exploration to increase domestic supply of these fuels. And it is time to get on with using shale gas. Thanks to outrageous misinformation, the public are concerned about fracking, but the evidence shows it is a technique which can be safely used.

Natural gas is an excellent and a clean fuel. It can give us time to start a major rebuild of nuclear electricity generation. There are real signs that advanced modular reactors are the answer to the production of high-grade industrial heat, one of the hardest areas to decarbonise without pricing our manufacturers out of the international markets.

In the future, there may even be nuclear fusion, but banking on it would be a huge gamble. We will need to maintain a sophisticated and capable society if we are to overcome that technology’s known difficulties, and that means keeping energy costs low today.

The quickest win for the public and the government would be to encourage the construction of a new generation of gas-fired power stations. These would have much higher efficiencies than the existing fleet, which is mostly rather old, and could reduce wholesale electricity prices by as much as a third.

This gas-to-nuclear policy is a sound, balanced approach to emissions reductions. It doesn’t rule out anything – there can still be voluntary adoption of heat pumps and EVs – but it allows the public much more freedom to decide what works for them and how fast they can afford to decarbonise.

That is rational. That is Conservative. And it would work.