Chris Huhne’s turbulent weekend

Chris HuhneI speculated this month somewhat idly on whether the UK or US energy secretary would be the first to quit his post. Many in the gossipy world of Westminster politics are betting on an imminent departure of Chris Huhne. But after one of the stormiest weekends of his political life, it is difficult to say whether he is now stronger or weaker.

The story that might yet kill Huhne’s political career, at least in the short term, is entirely non energy-related. Police are considering whether to investigate claims that he asked another person to take driving penalty points on his behalf for a speeding offence. He denies any wrongdoing.

If this potential scandal does claim his job, recent events mean his policy legacy is also unclear.

On the plus side, he has just won his first big cabinet battle, persuading prime minister David Cameron to sign up to proposals by the committee for climate change (a statutory body) on faster emissions cuts. Cameron agreed to do so despite opposition from the Treasury and business and transport departments.

One of Huhne’s greatest challenges had been to rebut the claims of his own Liberal Democrat colleague, Vince Cable, the energy secretary, who had warned the move could be too costly for business.

Huhne will claim a win, but his victory is not unalloyed: the agreement will reportedly contain a get-out clause, allowing the UK to review the target if other EU nations renege on their own commitments, which could become a very significant loophole.

Huhne’s success at shepherding through the UK’s most comprehensive electricity market reforms since privatisation has also recently been called into question, after an influential committee of MPs produced a report criticising the plan.

The report is critical of two aspects of the proposals: that they are not radical enough; and that the energy department has been unclear on how they provide support for nuclear power, despite the coalition’s promise not to provide any public subsidy for that industry.

But just as Huhne’s carbon budget victory was not total, this setback has not been entirely negative either.

Firstly, having been criticised by many in the industry for interfering too much in the energy markets, Huhne may welcome the political cover (especially as it comes from a Conservative-led committee) provided by voices urging him to go further.

Secondly, the committee is not criticising the carbon floor price, nor even the fact that it will help nuclear power, only the fact that the energy department has not been clear that it will. It is hardly the most damning judgement on a large and comprehensive set of reforms.

Tim Yeo, the committee’s chairman, said:

Ministers believe that new nuclear could play a key role in keeping the lights on and meeting our climate change targets, but they don’t want to own up to supporting it.

This is understandable given the promise they made not to subsidise nuclear, but it would be deeply irresponsible to skew the whole process of electricity market reform simply to save face.

Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months at the energy department, it seems there is now enough momentum behind Huhne’s proposed reforms to make sure this will end up being his lasting legacy.

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