One of the oddest aspects of British policy in the run up to the war in Ukraine and its aftermath was the strange inability of the government to switch to a proper war era energy policy. Not only was there no major move on increasing supply, when the country needs to get its hands on more of every kind of energy. Renewing storage on gas is happening, although it took an age. Weirdest of all there has been no public information campaign to encourage reduced use of energy. This is odd because it would only cost in the region of £20m, against an energy bailout and subsidy of consumers that will cost north of £100bn.
This week it was announced there will be a campaign, at last, ten months late. The adverts have started running online. They involve Grant Shapps and a mischievous elf.
Britain has not reduced its use meaningfully this year when you take out the warm autumn weather effect. Aidan Kerr, of Drax Group, highlighted it this week. The four biggest nations in Europe consumed 30-40% less gas than in previous years, compared to a fall of only 20% in Britain.
Various other European countries have introduced restrictions on energy use in public buildings. Germany has been the most ambitious, with a highly successful public campaign to reduce energy use and rigorous targets on using less gas.
This was only needed, of course, because of the utter failure and collapse of Merkelism. Germany under Angela Merkel became even more addicted to Russian gas. When she was in office, the former Chancellor was hailed by her fans in Britain and elsewhere as the ultimate political sophisticate, and yet Germany made a catastrophic series of misjudgments that emboldened Putin.
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Britain got the war part right, warning it was coming and then offering military support. Somehow its government failed to make the connection between a sustained war it had been right about and the need to prepare for a long energy crisis.
It seemed so obvious all year that a PM, one of them, should have addressed the nation and explained the war requires a shared sacrifice and effort on energy.
Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, hardly an advocate of nanny statism, wanted such a campaign. Privately, he suggested a public information campaign when he was Business Secretary, briefly, during the Truss interregnum. Those saying the public can figure it out are making the mistake of assuming everyone is as clever as they are. Many of us don’t know. There is widespread ignorance of how to make savings and adjust heating systems to reduce use.
The sensible case put by Rees-Mogg to Number 10 was that there was no downside to a campaign emphasising three savings beginning with B. It’s a bargain. Reduce your own bills, reduce the size of the national bailout, and reduce the nation’s borrowings.
It seemed Truss agreed, or at least Rees-Mogg was given that impression. Then the campaign was blocked mysteriously. Then she was gone.
Belatedly, Rishi Sunak’s administration will, deep into this winter already, begin some form of campaign soon.
Early in the year, last winter, was when the big opportunity was missed. Why didn’t it happen?
The personality of Boris Johnson is a factor. He dislikes nanny statism by instinct and believed there had been enough of that already during Covid. He was also “high on his own supply” after Cop26, held in Glasgow in November 2021. It had been deemed a public relations success, if you like that sort of thing. Energy had been “sorted” and he was by January distracted by being mired increasingly in scandals.
But I’m told the decision also owed a lot to a Thick of It type media conflagration, according to a former Number 10 person.
In early January this year a public relations row broke out involving the energy firm Ovo. An enthusiastic employee sent an email to customers suggesting they turn down the heating, do star jumps to stay warm, or clean the house, or cuddle their pets.
A horrified Number 10 recoiled. The CEO of the firm had to apologise. The “row” ran for days. Looking back through the cuttings, the media and the Westminster lobby behaved badly, chasing a gotcha moment. That was how Number 10 saw it. “No one wanted to be caught at a briefing appearing to ask the public to perform star jumps to keep their heating bill down,” says someone then in the Number 10 media machine.
Energy reduction campaigns were tarnished in government at just the wrong moment, six weeks before the start of a war the UK government did see coming. An organised PM, a Thatcher for example, would have shown leadership on rethinking energy policy but this was Boris. This is a mistake that will likely have cost the country a fortune – easily more than £10bn this year. Who’s counting, though? It’s only other people’s money. That is, it is only our money as taxpayers. The bigger the numbers get, the less anyone seems to care.
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