James Forsyth

The Amber express

The climate change minister wants a more practical focus on future bills – while admitting renewables will push them up

The Amber express
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Amber Rudd isn’t a flashy politician; her office at the Department for Energy and Climate Change has almost no personal touches. She has a poster on the wall for the new Edinburgh tram (she was a student there). Her one concession to vanity is a framed ‘Minister of the Year’ award from this magazine: awarded for uprooting the legacy of the Liberal Democrat energy policy and being (in the words of the commendation) the ‘slayer of windmills’.

It was, perhaps, an exaggeration: she hasn’t brought down any of Britain’s 5,215 onshore wind turbines. But she has been busy pruning back the green subsidies that her department had become used to doling out. She is driven, she says, by anger at the green racket — or, as she puts it, ‘people making huge returns on bill-payers’ money’. She tells me that when she was first appointed she asked the department how much it was spending in subsidies, and the figure ‘came in about 20 per cent over what had been agreed with the Treasury in the last parliament’. The green agenda was running out of control, so she acted.

The problem, Rudd says, was that under Labour and then Lib Dem control, the Department of Energy had not been run much like a department of energy. ‘It had been run a bit like a green think tank or a green NGO; very pure of heart, very noble. But not enough focus on bills, on the future, on planning, trying to look 20 or even ten years ahead.’ British energy policy had been set by a succession of zealots. ‘You had Ed Miliband, Chris Huhne, Ed Davey — there hadn’t been a Conservative one for nearly 20 years.’ Her predecessors, she says, had prided themselves on ‘their approach to climate change rather than their approach to delivering cheaper bills’.

Rudd believes that global warming is man-made, and says that most people in her party agree with her. But her priority is how to respond in a calm, sensible way. ‘We account for just over 1 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions. For China, it’s 26 per cent — more than the whole of the EU and the US combined,’ she says. ‘So we can’t do this on our own. But we can show leadership.’ Which means continuing a move towards renewable energy, while acknowledging that it will be expensive. ‘We must be frank about it: there is a bit of a cost. We’re not going to be able to have renewable energy cheaper than coal and gas.’

Oil is certainly cheap at the moment — over the past two years the price has fallen from $110 to $40 a barrel. But this has brought its own problems, in the form of collapsing North Sea oil revenues (as set out in shocking detail in this week’s budget). Under the plan that Alex Salmond put to Scots two years ago, Scotland’s ‘independence day’ would have been next week — Thursday 24 March, to be precise — and he estimated there would be up to £8 billion of oil revenue to ease the transition. Instead, it is close to £100 million. Ms Rudd’s job now involves supporting what is effectively a loss-making sector. ‘I mean we try not to point it out too often, but the phrase “the broad shoulders of the United Kingdom” applies,’ she says, referring to how Scotland is coping with this loss of oil revenue. ‘It is absolutely the case that all this would have had a horrific impact on the economics of an independent Scotland.’ So it falls to a UK Energy Secretary, drawing on Britain’s pooled resources, to do what she can to stop Scottish talent fleeing to the Gulf of Mexico. ‘I saw Nicola Sturgeon interviewed on this and I found her totally unconvincing,’ she adds.

Rudd was elected six years ago for the marginal south-coast seat of Hastings. She is one of the new breed of Tory MPs who spend significant amounts of time in their seats. She declares with pride: ‘I had a train named after me.’ Seeing the puzzled look on my face, she explains: ‘A friend of mine got on it and the ticket inspector said to him, welcome to the Arse. He said, I beg your pardon? He said we call it the Amber Rudd Seaside Express!’ She credits shy Tories for her significantly increased majority. She recalls knocking on one door and ‘finding this man who answered the door in his vest and agreed to come down and vote Conservative if I’d give him a lift to the polling station, on one condition: that I didn’t tell the neighbours.’

Some Tory MPs feel this way about voting to stay in the EU. But not Rudd. She will be campaigning enthusiastically to stay in. In an apparent dig at the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, she says, ‘I’m not “in” with a heavy heart.’ Her brother Roland, one of the best-connected men in public relations, is a leading figure in the ‘in’ campaign. Rudd herself would like to see the EU doing more, not less, in her ministerial area, arguing passionately for an EU energy union.

Taking the tone of an enthusiastic games teacher, she declares that this referendum needn’t cause a civil war in the Tory party. But she isn’t afraid of verbal combat. ‘It is sometimes difficult to make your case without pointing out that the other person is wrong.’

When she needs to talk to someone outside of politics, she goes to see her 91-year-old father, a former stock--broker. They have dinner every week and discuss any particularly thorny problems. He is, she says, ‘bright as a button’ and ‘it’s really helpful talking to him about it’.

Her civil servants may remain strong believers in the green gospel, but she says she will not try to convert them. ‘I wouldn’t have it any other way,’ she says. ‘They believe passionately in what they are doing and are very supportive of the new direction that I’ve pushed the department in. I think we can keep people’s passion — their religion — but also make them practical.’ After all, she says: ‘He who prays hard, works hard.’