Ed Davey shows other Lib Dem ministers how to put forward a savvy argument within Coalition

by Stephen Tall on November 25, 2012

I was very struck, reading Ed Davey’s interview with The Guardian this weekend, how he chose to describe the deal-making process between the two Coalition parties over the energy bill:

Davey admits that the failure to secure a decarbonisation target by 2030 is his biggest disappointment. “This was the most difficult issue in discussion, and a genuine issue of disagreement. I think we have got a good compromise. We have agreed we will now take a power in the energy bill so the government is empowered to establish a decarbonisation target at a later date. That was not on the table when we started this negotiation.

“I wanted to set the decarbonisation target in 2013-14. The Conservatives wanted to wait, saying it should be done in 2016 at the same time as the fifth carbon budget covering the years 2028-2032.”

The renewable energy sector claims the delay is a big mistake, since investment lead times in the energy sector are so long that the industry needs to know now what demands will be placed on it by the government for 2030. That in turn places a threat to the government’s overriding statutory obligations. Davey points out that the renewable energy target set by Tony Blair for 2020 was only set at EU level in 2008, 12 years ahead of when it needed to be met. “If we set the decarbonisation target in 2016, it will be set 14 years ahead of when it needs to be met,” he says.

He adds: “We will be going into the election promising to set a decarbonisation target. I assume Labour will be and the question will be what the Tories do. The deal has more than kept the door open to a decarbonisation target.”

His narrative reminded me a lot of John Kampfner’s advice to the Lib Dems this September:

Clegg’s problem is this: how can you do business with another team, while making clear that you do not share most of their values or aspirations? This lies at the heart of coalition politics, which continental Europeans have had far more experience of dealing with. What has been found to work is when, publicly but politely, one leader says: “We advocated A, they advocated B, but we agreed to settle on C.” All surveys in Europe suggest that the public respects an open airing and settling of differences. Yet the Lib Dem leader consistently dismisses this notion. Instead he has fluctuated from the mistaken love-in on the lawn and the kamikaze mission over tuition fees, to visceral anger over Cameron’s undermining of the AV campaign and House of Lords reform.

Ed Davey makes clear the Lib Dems pushed for, and will continue to push for, a decarbonisation target; that the Tories oppose it; and therefore the Coalition has arrived at a compromise — no decorbonisation target yet (bad) but significant investment in renewables (good) with decarbonisation still very much on the political agenda.

End result, the public understands:
— what each party thinks about the issue;
— why compromise was needed to find a way forward; and
— which way to vote at the next election to make it more likely the policy they agree with will stand the best chance of succeeding.

Mature, transparent, accountable government — it could catch on, y’know.