Tomorrow’s referendum on reforming the UK’s voting system may seem to have little to do with the energy sector but the result could have far reaching implications for Energy Policy if we take Energy Secretary Chris Huhne’s recent attacks on his coalition partners at face value.
The referendum may not have stirred the passions of the country at large but in the Westminster village feelings are running high. With the polls now pointing to a decisive ‘no’ vote, the Liberal Democrat rank-and-file is beginning to ask what it has got out of the coalition, other than a halving in their party’s electoral support. Reflecting that sullen mood, various senior party figures, most prominently the Energy Secretary Chris Huhne, have been picking fights with senior Tories over the way the referendum has been handled. Reports suggest Mr Huhne and the Chancellor, George Osborne, had a row in Cabinet yesterday on this subject and there is now speculation that Mr Huhne will storm out of Government if the ‘no’ campaign prevails.
All of this has to be seen in the context of local elections tomorrow and a desire by both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to put some clear blue water between them, for now at least. Should the Lib Dems do particularly badly in this election – as seems certain – Clegg’s position will become a little less certain, and senior figures such as Huhne, Vince Cable and Simon Hughes are all moving to distance themselves from him. At some point there might be an election to replace Mr Clegg and the various runners and riders want to be best placed to appeal to the party’s grassroots. But what looks like simple posturing may have a serious impact on energy policy-making. It is just possible that, should Chris Huhne have gone too far in his criticisms, there may be a new Energy Secretary next week; much more likely is that Mr Huhne will remain in the Cabinet, but at the expense of more difficult relationships with key Ministers, including in the Treasury. And what that will mean for advancing DECC’s agenda remains to be seen.
By contrast, a ‘yes’ vote, however unlikely it currently seems, will of course be good news for the LibDems – both immediately and in future elections – and would now also be seen as good news for Mr Huhne personally. In turn, Conservative party members will be unhappy, and that will be reflected around the Cabinet table. But with the LibDems languishing in the polls, and the Tories behind Labour neither party would be keen on an early election – so whatever happens tomorrow expect the Government to stay on for some time yet.