One of the great benefits of events like the recent European Conservatives & Reformists Group Study Days in Windsor is the welcome (and all too rare) opportunity to engage with government ministers on the key issues of the day. This last week we heard from Prime Minister David Cameron; Foreign Secretary William Hague; Europe Minister David Lidington (pictured); Fisheries Minister Richard Benyon; Energy Minister Charles Hendry; and especially our former MEP colleague, now MP for High Barnet and Transport Minister, Theresa Villiers.
I got in the first question to David Lidington. Had he seen the report in that day’s Daily Mail that not only Steve Hilton, but now also Oliver Letwin, had decided that Britain would be Better Off Out of the EU? Could he confirm that this was Oliver Letwin’s view? David played my question with a straight bat. As a member of the government, he said, Oliver supported the government’s position on the EU. Yes. But that doesn’t quite answer the question.
Richard Benyon was very sound on fisheries — clearly a good man. He knows exactly what needs to be done. Unfortunately neither he, not the government, is in any position to deliver. The Commission’s first draft plan for CFP reform made quite a lot of sense, and reflected public outrage at the practice of discarding good fish (Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall’s Big Fish Fight Campaign). But then the vested interests got to work, and each successive policy redraft has edged it back towards the status quo. Sadly, the EU doesn’t do reform.
Energy Minister Charles Hendry was, I think, quite taken aback by the strength of opposition in the ECR group to green policies generally and to the EU’s proposed 30% emissions reduction in particular. I took the opportunity to set out, very succinctly, the case against 30%, and the huge damage that it would do to jobs, investment, competitiveness, as well as to the pensioners driven into fuel poverty and risking death from cold. I admit that even I was surprised by the warmth of the ovation in the room which greeted my intervention. The Poles, of course (who form the second largest national delegation in the ECR) are highly dependent on coal, and efforts to curb CO2 emissions will represent a serious asymmetric shock for Poland, as their own Commissioner has already made clear.
Theresa Villiers gave us a comprehensive review of government transport policy. I raised the question of High Speed Rail, on which I’m an agnostic — I can see both sides of the argument. Theresa made a good case for the economic benefits of major transport infrastructure projects, citing two examples — Canary Wharf in London, and Lille in France (on the Eurostar line), where in both cases new transport links supported very rapid economic growth, with new investment and jobs.
The growth of electric cars was discussed, and Theresa cited the benefit of running costs as low as one to three pence per mile. But I suspect that if and when the growth of electric vehicles starts to make a serious dent in George Osborne’s fuel duty revenues, he’ll find new ways to tax the electric motorist.
My regional colleague Emma McClarkin raised the important and vexed issue of the rolling stock order that went to Siemens in Germany, not to Bombardier in Derby (I had already written to Theresa on the issue). Theresa well understood the concern, and the local anger in Derby, but said that the government after much thought and careful analysis had come to the conclusion that under EU procurement rules, they had no option but to choose Siemens. This leaves outstanding the question why similar French and German orders always seem to go to national suppliers.
We were also addressed by Andrew Feldman, Co-Chairman of the Party. His remarks were of interest to British members, but perhaps failed to engage with the concerns of his wider audience. Nevertheless, the whole event was rated a great success, and I was glad to be there.