The 2022 Conservative and Labour Conferences took on a new edge with a new Prime Minister and a general election just over two years away. With the cost of living crisis making energy a hot-button issue, find out what both major parties had to say this conference season.
Do Conservatives have the energy? A focus on growth
Since coming to power, ‘growth’ has been the mantra used by the new Prime Minister and her Chancellor to identify their economic strategy – and this theme continued in Birmingham at the annual meeting of the party faithful.
During the week, Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg spoke about his plan to ‘get Britain moving’ by rapidly accelerating CCS, expanding the wind farm at Dogger Bank, developing hydrogen and nuclear, including small modular nuclear reactors, and developing a new fusion reactor prototype in Nottinghamshire. Through liberalising planning rules and accelerating infrastructure projects, the government hopes to reverse the last decade of poor productivity to achieve its 2.5% growth target by encouraging competition and introducing supply-side reforms.
Jacob Rees-Mogg also addressed affordability and energy security, introducing the abstract phrase ‘Intelligent Net Zero’ – believed to mean how we tackle climate change in the best way for people, places, and the planet. We can expect to hear more of this in the coming weeks.
There was an odd silence on the Energy Security Taskforce, which was set up under Boris Johnson but appears to have taken a much more prominent role under the new regime. We understand it has an interesting two-fold approach, with short-term action on immediate supply security, but also medium- to long-term plans for leaning into more reliable friends and nations, such as the US and middle east allies, on future supply needs. It is said that something of real substance is expected in the next few weeks.
But this conference was always going to be about one person – the new Prime Minister, Liz Truss – and if she would be able to unite the party following a period of infighting and ‘blue-on-blue’ attacks.
The Prime Minister’s speech told us much about how she aims to position her party against what she calls the ‘anti-growth coalition’; Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP, the unions, and Brexit deniers were all labelled as being anti-business and holding Britain back. Truss, on the other hand, will reinforce the UK’s energy security by opening more gas fields in the North Sea and delivering more renewables and nuclear energy to level up the UK.
While many Conservative MPs agree with this message, many are still questioning if Ms Truss is the right person to deliver.
After a punishing month in which the Prime Minister has been heavily criticised conference was supposed to draw a line under a catastrophic first few weeks in power for Truss and unite the party behind a shared vision of the future. However, it is difficult to see if this is going to be successful.
With a general election in as little as 18 months and a Conservative collapse a very real prospect, it isn’t only Conservative MPs with slim majorities watching the opinion polls closely. Even MPs and ministers with 10,000-plus majorities will start putting their personal survival above all else if things don’t turn around. The immediate danger for Liz Truss, therefore, isn’t a resurgent Labour party with a double-digit lead in the opinion polls, for the Prime Minister it comes from her backbenches and, in time, potentially from within her own cabinet.
While Ms Truss will be given some time to get her house in order and deliver on her growth agenda, she and her MPs will have one eye on that January 2025 deadline – the last possible day for a general election. The clock is ticking.
Is this Labour’s moment? Being part of the conversation
The story from Labour Party Conference is the party’s Energy Policy can be described as an ‘all of the above’ approach to a shift towards green energy – more wind, more solar, more nuclear, more insulation, and more energy companies.
The headlines surrounded Great British Energy – a new company similar in style to EDF in France or Vattenfall in Sweden – which would be a new participant in the market, providing additional capacity, with a goal to establish the UK as a ‘clean energy superpower’ and be a guarantor of long-term energy security.
They would also be able to pilot new technologies that represent a commercial risk, but an opportunity when they are developed. From this commercial approach, Rachel Reeves announced an £8 billion national wealth fund to support the development of green infrastructure, including green steel plants and battery factories, created by revenues from this experimental renewable energy technology.
In other areas of energy, there is a division; tempered opposition to further oil and gas licenses, with firmness against fracking and the mentions of gas surrounding increasing storage. The moves on nuclear are of significant note – championed by the unions, but this time with the clear support and consent of the members at conference– an indication beyond a leadership position but movement in ideological approach, which should offer significant assurance for their future development.
A new industrial strategy, ‘Prosperity through Partnership’, was launched with four objectives: delivering clean power by 2030, harnessing data for the public good, caring for the future, and building a more resilient economy. All are framed around collaboration between the state and business. The anchors for growth surround energy investments, green technological advancement and building a more sustainable society. Within this is a major plan for retrofitting across the economy – from insulation to accessibility.
The Labour conference was seen as a success. Their policies landed well and appear to have significant support, with even media that would be assumed to lead the charge against the being effectively dispassionate.
That means the game has changed. Labour are now a party that is serious, with a serious chance of power. For those of us looking to help shape and develop the policy environment, it means taking them seriously as well. The opportunity, and necessity, of engagement with Labour on energy and industrial strategy, is very much upon us.
What is clear is that energy is going to be an important theme for the next year across the political divide. Yet, there is all to play for, so engaging with both parties has never been more important – it is a window of opportunity that will not last.