The “new improved” Simon Hughes is suddenly on best behaviour up in Liverpool at the Lib Dem annual conference, after several months of mischief-making. That is the theory. But you don’t have to look too hard or too far to find evidence of his potential trouble-making capacity.
In today’s speech he says that the Liberal Democrats will continue to fight:
On issues which are important to us:
In opposition to a like for like replacement of Trident
In opposition to nuclear power
Scrapping tuition fees
Always defending human rights and civil liberties
And always campaigning against obscene profits and obscene bonuses whilst others struggle to make ends meet.
On Trident we already know Clegg and his party are opposed to the Tories. Defending civil liberties and rubbishing bankers are par for the course for the coalition at this point in time.
But ministers may wish that Hughes would stay silent over tuition fees – not least as they are probably about to go up if anything (depending on the Browne review).
More importantly, his opposition to nuclear power is telling. Not least given that Chris Huhne, the new Lib Dem energy secretary, has signalled his willingness to accept the need for nuclear. (He now says he has ‘no intention of the lights going out under my watch.‘)
Any signs of enduring resistance within the coalition to new nuclear power stations could create nervousness within the industry. Especially as E.ON, the world’s largest utility company, has written to Huhne to demand clarification of remarks made by Huhne last week.
According to this morning’s Times (business section, page 45) the group and its partner RWE-npower want a consumer-funded levy to help support its £15bn investment in two new nuclear reactors. They were therefore unhappy to hear Huhne tell a select committee that he thought the industry view had converged on the view “that the carbon price floor will be enough (alone)”.
Lib Dem MPs have been given a free vote on any future Commons votes involving nuclear power, under the coalition agreement. With Hughes, deputy leader of the party, speaking out against the policy it would be no surprise if many of his colleagues follow suit.
UPDATE: Chris Huhne is making an energy speech later this afternoon. Expect him to issue the coalition line about backing nuclear power but only if it doesn’t involve public subsidies. Over at the FT’s energy blog they will be following progress closely.
UPDATE at 4.30pm: Yes, Huhne has this to say about nuclear:
And George Osborne expects me to deliver our agreement on nuclear power, which is that there is an important place for new nuclear stations in our energy mix as long as there is no public subsidy. A deal is a deal, and I will deliver. I’m fed up with the stand-off between renewable and nuclear which means we have neither – we will have both. We will have low carbon energy, and security of supply.
And I say again there will be no subsidy to nuclear, for a very clear reason: it is a mature technology, not an infant needing nurture. Every person in my department has a very clear motivation to ensure that the full costs of nuclear – present and future – are fully taken into account. More than half our budget – £1.7bn a year – goes on the clean-up costs of old nuclear facilities. Britain had artificially cheap nuclear electricity for decades. Governments repeatedly looked only at the short term. The result is that we are paying far, far more than if we had dealt with waste and decommissioning in a timely manner. Never again. Not on my watch. No hidden subsidies.