Hands On or Hands Off?

Fracking – a whole new Tory faultline


Was Greg Hands a middle child? Always trying to keep the peace, moderating between irreconcilable positions? Just trying to find a route by which everyone can be happy?

The Energy Minister was summoned to the Commons on Tuesday to ask an Urgent Question from Lee Anderson, the Conservative MP for Ashfield and a man who exists in a state of permafury. You might remember him from such episodes as “I’m Boycotting The England Football Team Until They Stop Opposing Racism” and “Let’s Put Problem Council Tenants In Forced Labour Camps”. He exists to supply angry quotes on any subject to journalists who worry that Andrew Bridgen will bring too much nuance to a subject.

You get the impression Hands would be an ideal neighbour

The question that Anderson wanted answering was “to confirm what the government’s current stance is on shale gas production in the UK”. Or, as he didn’t quite put it, “wouldn’t a few earthquakes in Lancashire be a price worth paying for lower gas bills in Nottinghamshire?”

The problem for the government is that the Conservative Party is, essentially, divided into two camps.

On the one hand, there are MPs who represent places where fracking wouldn’t happen and who are quite attracted to the idea of living in an episode of Dallas, with limitless free energy, or whatever it is they’ve convinced themselves fracking would deliver. On the other hand, there are MPs who represent places that would be drilled, and they are absolutely uncertain that “fracked” would be a good way to describe their prospects at the next election if it went ahead.

In between was Hands, doing his best to be emollient. You get the impression that he would be an ideal neighbour, always willing to lend a tool, delighted to have the chance to put your bins out when you’re on holiday, crossing the road to stop a fight. He probably thinks England footballers are a fine bunch of young men who make their country proud. In many ways he is the Un-Anderson.

He quoted Labour’s 1997 manifesto, a mere quarter-century old

The government’s position on fracking, the process of getting gas out of shale rock, had not changed since the 2019 election, Hands insisted. The government was open to it, he said, but had put a “pause” in place while it awaited new scientific evidence. Look at our manifesto, he said. The problem is that this is not quite what the manifesto said. It used the word “moratorium”, which sounds a lot more final than “pause”. There is a sense that the government is thinking about shifting.

Anderson certainly thinks it should. “The course of action is clear to me,” he said. There was heckling, and he looked up from his speech. “I challenge any MP in this House to come to my constituency and speak to some real people who are struggling with their gas bills. Not one person in this place has to worry about paying their gas bill.”

At one level it was a fair enough, but Anderson’s conviction that only the people of Ashfield are real let him down. His Conservative colleague Mark Menzies, for instance, represents Fylde, where the fracking would actually take place. He was deeply annoyed at Anderson trespassing on his patch. “These are not viable wells,” he fumed. “Will the minister confirm that and stop this nonsense now?”

Torn between the two warring sides of his own party, Hands tried to keep the peace. The policy, he insisted, hadn’t changed. Whatever it was, it was the same.

Ed Miliband, for Labour, made the most of the ministerial confusion. “The government are all over the place,” he said. It should abandon fracking and go for a “green sprint” of onshore wind turbines, solar power and new nuclear plants.

On that, Hands replied that, as so many things seem to be, our current problems are the fault of Labour. He quoted its 1997 manifesto, a mere quarter-century old, as saying there was no case for more nuclear power. His attitude to historical investigations was somewhat selective. When Labour’s Matt Western asked him about a decision of a government in which he actually served, Hands replied that he didn’t want to “go back down memory lane to 2010”.  

But most of the argument was among Tory MPs. “Nobody wants fracking,” said Alexander Stafford, whose constituency would be a target. It would bring jobs and investment, said Craig Mackinlay, whose constituency wouldn’t be.

Sir Edward Leigh demanded to know whether solar panels could be subject to the same constraints as fracking wells, although it is unclear how many earthquakes solar panels have caused. Sir Iain Duncan Smith warned the government not to be ideological, and I missed the next bit because I had to go and have a lie down.

The closest we got to a Tory compromise was from Kevin Hollinrake, whose constituency of Thirsk and Malton has a great deal of fracking potential. “We will need gas for many decades into the future, so in principle I am not against it,” he began. That’s in principle. What about in practice, Kevin? “I happen to think that it would be easier to do exploration in the North Sea.” Right you are.

When Boris Johnson decides what his new energy policy is, we may well find that, in principle, he’s now supportive of fracking. In practice, it’s very hard to see him getting it through.

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