James Kirkup

Boris should be worried about Steve Baker, not Dominic Cummings

Boris should be worried about Steve Baker, not Dominic Cummings
Steve Baker (photo: Getty)
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While Westminster fixates on Dominic Cummings, what could well be a bigger political challenge for Boris Johnson is being somewhat overlooked. That challenge is called Steve Baker.

Baker has now launched his long-whispered campaign over net zero and the policies it entails. He’s in the Sun today talking about issues including gas boilers and the need to replace them with something that doesn’t burn gas.

Reaching net zero carbon emissions means a boiler switchover has to happen, and soon. Homes account for about 14 per cent of the UK’s carbon output, and weaning the country off gas boilers is possibly the trickiest bit of making net zero (a legal requirement, remember) actually happen.

Baker, a big figure in Brexit politics, is unhappy about what appears to have been a bungled briefing from the business department about the possibility of imposing fines on people who don’t replace their gas boilers with low-carbon heat-pumps.

If you don’t know about heat pumps, now would be a good time to start learning about them, because they’re going to become very important in British politics. Because the government’s policy (and the law) means we’re going to need to make and install an awful lot of them in the next decade or so.

Baker says he’s worried about the costs of doing that, and worried that those costs will fall unfairly on voters, especially poorer ones. He talks about a heat pump costing ‘more than £10,000’ to install.

His concerns are largely endorsed by the Sun in a leader. Despite its ‘Go Green campaign’, the paper says it’s not in favour of stuff that will cost its readers money: it wants the benefits of decarbonisation, with none of the associated costs.

Why is this a big deal? Well, Baker has a fair track record of disrupting official plans. He drove the European Research Group that helped give Britain a much harder Brexit than it might have done. He’s clearly aiming here at the segment of public opinion that underpinned the Leave vote: cost-of-living voters who are open to claims that things are being imposed on them by what Baker calls ‘elite policymakers’.

Those voters are now a key plank of Tory support, in the ‘red wall’ and elsewhere. And Baker is prominently arguing that net zero is going to be bad – or at least, unfairly expensive – for them.

This should not have come as a surprise to No. 10. Quite a few people (I am one) have been warning about this sort of potential backlash for some time. It’s been clear for some time that ministers need to do more to explain the boiler transition, to put in place policies to ensure its costs are distributed and mitigated fairly, and – above all – to support the market in reducing the costs of heat pumps.

So far, no big, public-facing campaign over decarbonising home heat has been forthcoming, leaving a vacuum that Baker is trying to fill. The business department will soon produce its heat and buildings strategy, which will be a start, but some people in government worry that the politics of net zero are running faster than the machinery of government.

Steve Baker won his last war, but it’s far from certain that he’ll win this one. A big reason to doubt him is that he’s betting against the power of markets to deliver innovation, which is rarely a good wager to make.

A decade ago, Tories sceptical about David Cameron’s green agenda said that renewable electricity generation would never be economically viable, complaining that bill-payers were subsidising useless windmills. Since then, the cost of generating power from wind has fallen by more than 70 per cent. The cost of solar generation is down around 90 per cent.

The market, supported by governments in the early stages, is now delivering the innovation and efficiency needed to take carbon out of power generation in a way that’s not just affordable but potentially cheaper. That’s the sort of market-driven miracle you might expect market-backing Conservatives to embrace and celebrate.

A similar process is underway over electric vehicles, as the automotive industry focuses on reducing the costs of battery-powered cars – because making those vehicles affordable for mass purchase is how carmakers will stay in business. That basic market force will, in due course, take internal combustion engines off the road; what’s left for governments to do is help deliver the infrastructure to power and charge them, and support workers affected by his huge industrial shift.

Even as Baker stakes out his position, there are growing signs that the market is going to work similar magic on heating. Octopus Energy is spending £10 million on a heat pump engineering centre; the company reckons it can get the cost of a heat pump (including installation) down to £5,500 fairly soon.

Why is Octopus, a profit-seeking company doing this and spending in this way? Because if it can make cheaper heat pumps, more people will buy them and the company will make more money. Other companies will want to do the same, trying to beat Octopus to those sales by cutting costs and prices. The market will deliver.

This is a positive, market-driven story, one that Boris Johnson and his team shouldn’t struggle to tell. If they need an example of how net zero can play well with the new Tory faithful, they should ask Ben Houchen about ‘net zero Teeside’. A new generation of Conservatives know that decarbonisation can mean jobs and wealth for voters.

This doesn’t mean that the political journey to net zero will all be smooth – there’s an awful lot that needs to happen to ensure that the economic benefits of transition are fully realised and properly distributed – and made visible and tangible. Doing more to listen to the people Steve Baker is appealing to would be a good idea too.

But it’s eminently possible to make that journey, not to mention desirable. Boris Johnson, often accused of succumbing to short-term populism in other areas of policy, has so far been steadfast in his commitment to net zero. He’s the ideal person to make that policy properly popular among his core voters. Steve Baker won his last war, but Boris Johnson can point to his own record of political victories too. He’ll survive Dominic Cummings’s attacks – voters have already made up their minds about the pandemic – and he can see off Steve Baker on net zero too, if he puts his mind to it.