David Cameron’s energy ‘remarks’ leave media to create their own narrative

  • 26 Apr 2012, 14:15
  • Ros Donald and Christian Hunt

When is a speech not a speech?

With the Clean Energy Ministerial hosted in London for the rest of the week, the occasion of a David Cameron keynote speech to open the conference had been billed by government as the beginning of a Conservative " great green fightback", planned since January. Damian Carrington for the Guardian said energy and climate minister Greg Barker had told him Cameron would take the opportunity for a " major policy intervention by the prime minister" on the green economy.

But, over the course of the week, number 10 has apparently been trying desperately to downplay expectations, and Cameron's eventual brief remarks don't seem to have contained anything particularly substantive. With expectations duly managed and without much to go on, the media Interpret-o-thon 3000 went into overdrive, casting about for meaning in the runes. So it's no big surprise that the range of takes on the content in the media was quite wide - here's a roundup.

The news that the speech would be dramatically curtailed had already met with disapproval earlier this week. Geoffrey Lean for the Telegraph said yesterday the "abrupt downgrading of the occasion … just adds to the impression of a government in disarray", adding with displeasure that despite privately giving high-level assurances in recent months, the government is now pretending there was never going to be a whole speech from the PM in the first place.

What was behind the shift? Lean suspects a combination of jitters resulting from Chancellor George Osborne's most recent budget, news the country is heading back into recession and uncertainty about green energy policies following Osborne's hostile comments them. Carrington agreed, calling Cameron's sudden shyness an " extraordinary betrayal and abject failure of leadership".

Both of those pieces were written before the 'remarks', when journalists still thought there would be an opportunity to ask Cameron questions about the government's green policies. Indeed, BusinessGreen yesterday invited readers to submit the questions they'd like answered. But questions weren't on the agenda, with journalists reportedly watching the statement over video link from another room. Cameron gave short opening remarks to the Ministerial, and then left. Telegraph reporter Louise Gray wasn't impressed.

So has the much-trailed " great green fightback" (this speech was in the diary for months) turned into another omnishambles? BBC science editor David Shukman suggests today that "confusion" about promised subsidies is marring the UK's green revolution, leaving entrepreneurs "confused and a little angry", subject to a boom and bust cycle as a result of changing or ambiguous policies. Shukman notes the ambiguity of Cameron's remarks today:

"David Cameron spoke of his pride 'that Britain has played a leading role at the forefront of this green energy revolution.'

"But he also stressed a new challenge: 'we need to make it financially sustainable too.'

"Those at the forefront will want to know exactly what that means." 

The BBC's environment analyst, Roger Harrabin, stated that Cameron's "warm words" about renewables contained  no substantive discussion of the numbers - what would happen if offshore wind doesn't drop in price, or discussion about more ambitious carbon reduction targets for 2030.

The Guardian, meanwhile, contrasted Cameron's assertion that the government has lived up to its promise to be the greenest ever with comments by disappointed stakeholders. Mark Kenber, chief executive of the Climate Group told the Guardian that instead of sending a "clear signal to investors", Cameron "effectively reiterated the false dichotomy between 'non-affordable' renewables and 'affordable' fossil fuels." He added: "Today the PM sided with those in his government that feel that the green agenda is a 'burden'."

Well, maybe that's what you get in seven minutes. It's probably true that the government has other things on its mind this week. At least poor old Greg Barker is keeping his end up, tweeting determinedly that David Cameron was "really fired up" at the meeting, calling for a "second energy revolution" in the North Sea with wind and carbon capture and storage.

There are other signs of an internal effort to bolster the coalition's green standing - Barker's boss Ed Davey was similarly rumbustious yesterday over prospects for green policies to drive growth - just as we were coming to terms with news of a return to recession. Foreign Secretary William Hague also came out to bat on the issue in an article on the Huffington Post site yesterday, which might strengthen a belief that the Tories are taking climate and energy issues seriously, although none of the national papers chose to run it, according to Barker.

The Telegraph's piece on the remarks - written before the event - might give them some solace. Louise Gray wrote Cameron used the speech to "commit to wind farms", backing plans for 70 new offshore wind turbines as well as a new onshore wind farm. And James Murray of Business Green was similarly upbeat about the speech/remarks/whatever tweeting that he was "Honestly confused as to what speech some of Cameron's critics were watching..."

Read the transcript here and judge for yourself who's right.

But it's worth pondering that for all the hay the Conservatives have made out of green issues, Cameron still hasn't actually ever given anything that's been billed as a major speech on the environment, and this week doesn't appear to have changed that.

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