Thanks to the Leader of the Opposition, National Grid, and most recently SSE, energy policy is enjoying (if that is the word) a political focus that it has not had for some time.
This focus is however an exception, since despite the fact that the ability to have a constant supply of electricity and heat is taken for granted in Britain, these two fundamentals of modern life are generally treated in a policy and political context like they barely feature in our lives.
Most readers will be familiar with the fact that over the last twenty years we have had more energy ministers than any other significant ministerial post, with people like the late Malcolm Wicks holding the post more than once. Recent incumbents tend to have either got fired or seen to be heading for greater things.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s energy had its own department – until being subsumed into the old Department for Trade and Industry in 1992 which subsequently became the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (now the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills).
Only in 2008 with the creation of DECC did it get its own department again, (albeit shared with Climate Change), with Ed Miliband becoming its first Secretary of State. That may not last though, as many believe that energy policy will, in time, return to BIS with climate change to DEFRA, particularly since the current Energy Minister holds a dual role with his BIS responsibilities.
Despite energy’s importance to our lives, DECC is very much seen as a junior department with the post of Secretary of State for Energy a mere stepping stone to greater things. If you look at the Cabinet list on the No.10 website, the Secretary of State appears to be rated the 17th most important cabinet minister out of 22 cabinet ministers, with even International Development above energy.
That said, another major part of our day to day lives, Transport lies 18th, although in reality it is probably not seen that way by the commentariat. If Jim Murphy’s demotion earlier this week from Shadow Defence to International Development had been to say Transport, the fall would not have been seen to be so great.
Considering how energy policy is one of the ultimate long-term policy areas which above all needs to look 20 or 30 years in the future to ensure that our lights stay on and investment flows, it is surprising that it sits so low in our political pecking order.
Most polling on issues facing Britain tends to concentrate on the economy, immigration, NHS and unemployment, with energy hardly listed mainly because we don’t suffer black-outs or energy shortages. Yet, you only need to look at some of yesterday’s headlines about blackout threats to see that if we did suffer from energy crises the polling would change overnight as worries about keeping the lights on and our houses warm go through the roof.
As a result of this uncertainty, the political power for energy tends to end up in the hands of civil servants.
Many would argue that this is not such a bad thing, but with government departmental cuts and civil service churn making a significant impact, that is not the comfort blanket of old.
Ultimately of course, what it really means, and this is being played out in the usual fashion in today’s politics, is that energy policy is decided at the high altar of the Treasury, where the bean counters blithely brush aside much of the good work taking place at DECC and focus on the stark economics and not the more subtle approach that is needed.
Mixed messages from Government and the merry-go-round of energy ministers has undoubtedly caused a lot of uncertainty in the energy industry, although depending on how much impact each energy sector has been able to make at a policy level a change of minister can be both a source of frustration or opportunity.
It came as a bit of a surprise that, in the re-shuffles just taken place, no minister in DECC was moved although Labour showed their intent to make energy a major issue by increasing their Commons energy team. This government stability and opposition boost clearly show that the leaderships of both parties recognise that energy policy is, somewhat belatedly, becoming a key political battleground.
The Secretary of State for Energy will never get close to being considered one of the four great offices of state – but if it is the case that energy starts to take centre-stage then the role will at least take on greater status.
This should give any incumbent the punch to ensure that when the competing policy factions and issues are played out around the Cabinet table, the importance of keeping the lights on and the radiators working is given the status that it deserves and ultimately needs.
Perhaps with the new focus and belief in some quarters that energy will be a key issue in the 2015 General Election, the status of DECC and its ministers will rise.
Or perhaps after this particular political moment has passed, the lights will fizz, splutter, and once again go out at DECC. Only time will tell.