09 February 2012 11:56 AM

Injury time

Is there a curse hanging over Whitehall?

Ministers have fallen victim to a range of injuries and ailments in recent weeks. First Transport Minister Theresa Villiers broke her collarbone in a cycling accident, then Scotland Secretary Michael Moore got chicken pox, and then Treasury Chief Secretary Chloe Smith broke her foot.

It has created some difficulties for the Government, with Moore having to postpone a meeting with Alex Salmond (prompting jokey suspicions that biological warfare had broken out in the row over Scottish independence), while Villiers was "walking wounded" to vote for the welfare cap.

But as one Westminster wag has just joked, they've got off lightly compared to Chris Huhne - nursing a "broken career" after charges forced him to resign.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

21 November 2011 12:17 PM

Huhne's curse strikes again

Yet another calamity at Chris Huhne's Energy and Climate change department, where staff have been sent home for the day because of a water shortage.

At about 11am civil servants at the Whitehall Place HQ found there was no water to drink or flush toilets, and were directed to the adjacent building on 55 Whitehall.

But when the water also went off there, both buildings were shut and staff were ordered to work from home while Thames Water investigates the problem.

As I've reported several times, DECC's HQ has been beset by glitches.

A routine fire drill saw the alarm bells get stuck on while an engineer was caught in traffic, a flood wiped out staff belongings in the basement, the central heating and air conditioning seem to work in reverse, and in March a power cut struck when Mr Huhne was in the lift. Staff wonder if it is cursed.

UPDATE: Thames Water says they've checked out the issue and found nothing wrong with the mains - pinning the blame on "a problem with pumps inside the building." It really is cursed.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

26 October 2011 4:44 PM

The campaign group happy to accept cuts

Here's a refreshing change. Rather than fight cuts tooth and nail, as so many groups have done, part of the renewable energy industry has come up with a novel tactic as they petition Chris Huhne.

It comes from a new campaign group to protest against reductions in so-called feed-in tariffs for solar panels. This is the cash handed to individuals for installing green energy devices, but is being slashed back to stop budgets being bust. The body says it is happy to accept cuts, but is warning the proposed reductions will be fatal.

Howard Johns, of the Cut Don't Kill Solar Energy campaign, said: "The solar energy sector alone has created 25,000 jobs and has huge scope to expand further. At the moment we're facing threats of such drastic cuts in support for solar that the industry will be destroyed outright.

"We're happy to accept serious cuts, but the scale currently being proposed would kill jobs and innovation on a massive scale. The Government must get the balance right, not cut their nose off to spite their face."

What other ministers would give for such reasonable pressure groups.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

20 October 2011 3:30 PM

Huhne warned over return to dark ages

On Monday the Government held an energy summit after outrage at suggestions the Big Six energy firms are making £125 profit per customer.

But the desire to be seen to be driving down bills has sparked an angry (and entertaining) response from Ukip.

Upsetting the party's energy spokesman Godfrey Bloom is Chris Huhne's condemnation of high bills and the assertion that households could save £200 a year by careful budgeting and price comparison sites.

He told ESP Huhne should be "sent for remedial mathematics" because he "seems to want our vital energy sector to operate at a loss".

Flying the flag for market-based economics, he added: "The entire political class seem determined to boost the profits of candle makers at the expense of everybody else.

"The energy companies need profits to invest in better and secure supply. Without that we return to the dark ages."

It won't be a popular message - apart from with the gas and electricity giants.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

13 October 2011 4:00 PM

£2 billion a year on old electricity

Chris Huhne gave a major speech on nuclear power today which contained one quite amazing line.

Britain spends £2 billion A YEAR on nuclear electricity consumed in the fifties, sixties and seventies because decomissioning estimates were dramatically wrong.

They rocketed from an estimated £2 million in 1970 to £9.5 billion in 1990 and now stand at £53.7 billion, the Energy Secretary said, attacking the UK's historical nuclear strategy as “the most expensive failure of post-war policy-making”.

Huhne was famously anti-nuclear during his time in opposition but has become a convert in Government. Today he repeated his qualified support - that it needs to be part of the energy mix but with no public subsidy - and said of the past mistakes: “This will never happen again."

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

05 October 2011 11:42 AM

Lib-Dem bashing finally breaks out

In stark contrast to the Liberal Democrat conference, where attacks on the Tories seemed to come at the rate of one an hour, the Conservative gathering has been notable for a lack of bile thrown at the yellow corner.

William Hague set the tone by heaping praise on Nick Clegg, and ministers have largely stuck to the script (apparently under instruction and causing great irritation to Peter Bone).

But the entente cordiale has finally broken thanks to MEP Martin Callanan, Tory leader in the European parliament.

I've seen a copy of his speech and there is a cracking passage about Chris Huhne's fondness for the euro.

Mr Callanan mentions the Lib-Dem Energy Secretary's book making the case for the single currency, which is apparently availble new on Amazon for £99 or second hand for 1p.

"I wouldn't recommend that you spend a penny on it," the speech says.

"Or on second thoughts, maybe spending a penny on it is exactly what it deserves."

After reading a couple of pro-euro passages from it, Mr Callanan goes on: "Now you will understand how relieved I am that in Europe we don’t have to be in coalition with the Liberal Democrats."

Mr Bone will be jealous.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

30 September 2011 10:50 AM

Revealed: The Tory conference slogan (and more)

We can reveal that David Cameron's confernce will open under the slogan .... drum roll ....

"Leadership For A Better Future."

It's a phrase that acknowledges tough times but contains that classic Cameron optimism, pointing to a rturn of the good times if people stick with a tough leader.

In today's Standard there's a lively interview with the charming Tory chairman Sayeeda Warsi, who reveals the slogan and explains why leadership is the prime focus of the conference - and why families will "instinctively" swallow the tough medicine prescribed by Dr Cameron.

 "It would be so easy for us to get the [government’s] chequebook out and not make the tough calls. But ask people if they would prefer to have it easy now or, by taking tough decisions, create a better future for their children, most will instinctively choose to put their children first.”

Warsi is on her usual bubbly form. Shge reveals that she, Cameron and other ministers will be recroding audiobooks for blind chuildren during the conference (it's their latest social action project and us Press boys are invited to do the same).

The first considered Tory attack on Ed Miliband's speech is also there. She says Labour created the something-for-nothing society and asks how Ed's speech squares with Labour's opposition to removing legal aid from cheeky squatters.

There's lots more ... a return to old fashioned conference debates, some amazing techie innovations etc.

But my favourite line is a cracking joke about when Chris Huhne compared to the evil Dr Geobbels. “When I was young my mum wanted me to be a doctor and I never lived up to her expectations [Warsi became a lawyer]. What I always say is, the Conservatives might have made me a Lady - but it took the Liberal Democrats to make me a doctor.”



Joe Murphy

follow me on twitter  @JoeMurphyLondon



20 September 2011 11:40 AM

Energy bills - the fightback starts here?

Energy Secretary Chris Huhne has some tough words for the so-called "big six" energy firms today, vowing to "get tough" amid soaring household fuel bills.

He has announced a raft of measures to help hard-pressed consumers switch suppliers more easily, bulk-buy power as part of a collective, and make sure they get information about cheaper offers elsewhere. Regulator Ofgem will also be beefed up, with the prospect of fines for firms that go straight back to bill-payers rather than the Treasury pot, and "anti-competitive" predator pricing stamped out.

"There is hardship now, and we are determined to help," said Huhne. "Higher energy bills hurt".

It is an explicit recongition that households are struggling with double-digit rises imposed by all of the big six firms in recent weeks.

Whether it will work remains to be seen, but the measures have been given a strong welcome by consumer groups.

Comparison site said they would allow Ofgem to "take the gloves off" and were "just the kind of ammunition that consumers need".

Consumer Focus said the package would help save "much-needed cash" but warned a competition commission probe might still be needed if there is no progress. Which? said action was "overdue but welcome".

For their part, the industry has defended its record. Energy UK director Christine McGourty said Britain has "one of the most competitive energy markets anywhere in the world" and "the cheapest gas and the fourth cheapest electricity of all the leading European countries". She also backed measures that encourage people to make sure they are getting the best deal.

With the nights drawing in and the mercury plummeting, progress can't come soon enough.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

09 September 2011 9:08 AM

The Treasury case for lower fuel bills

When electricity and gas firms hike prices, piling misery on households, it's usually only a matter of time before politicians come out in favour of hard-pressed bill payers.

Indeed, earlier this year Energy Secretary Chris Huhne said consumers "don't have to take price increases lying down", urging people to "hit (firms) back where it hurts" by switching suppliers.

But it seems the Treasury has a vested interest in keeping bills low. Answering a PQfrom Labour's Cathy Jamieson, Justine Greening set out how higher bills squeeze household spending, in turn stopping people splashing the cash on items which have a 20% VAT rate. Energy is taxed at 5%

She said: "If extra expenditure on domestic fuel was funded by less spending on goods and services that attract the 20% standard rate of VAT, HMRC would receive less VAT revenue, since domestic fuel and power is taxed at the reduced rated rate of 5%."

Quite what Treasury officials will make of the news that the Coalition's green policies will see bills rise by £300 is anyone's guess.

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse

04 August 2011 3:29 PM

Curtains for Clegg?

When a Lib Dem as fearless and well connected as Lord Oakeshott warns it will be "Curtains for the Coalition" if the big banks are let off the hook again (see our fascinating interview here) then you can be sure that the PM and Chancellor will be reading every word closely.

But is the curtain falling for Nick Clegg?  Just read his utterly riveting reply to my question whether Nick Clegg will still be leader at the next election and beyond.

"What matters for Liberal Democrats and our future as an independent party is that we fight the next election as a completely independent party, at least equidistant between the Conservatives and Labour."

He then pointed out that 38 of 57 seats were won against the Tories, with Labour tactical votes. "The only way we can retain those seats is by persuading those voters it is still worth supporting us. That is the real strategic imperative and we have not long to do it.

"How do we get from here to a credibly independent Liberal Democrat Party in 2015? I think it will be difficult to persuade people we are a completely independent force if, on the eve of the poll, Liberal Democrat ministers are still having to defend what many would see as Tory policies."

Interpret this as you will but several points are obvious.  He did not say, "Of course Nick will be leader!".  He did say that the party needs to dramatically change people's perceptions in a short space of time. He suggested the Coalition will end before the election, leaving Britain with a short period of minority Conservative rule with the Lib Dems crossing the floor to the Opposition benches. In such a situation, appointing a new leader might be logical.

And just who might that be? Lord O is not saying, but read his mischievous response when I asked if he thinks his old pal Vince Cable will retire at the 2015 election. "I've never seen him more full of beans. I'm sure Vince's best years are yet to come."



Joe Murphy

follow me on twitter  @JoeMurphyLondon





16 June 2011 2:40 PM

Clegg revenge on Huhne


Nick Clegg had a few choice words today on his arch-rival close Cabinet colleague Chris Huhne who is being investigated by police over claims he used his wife's name to avoid a driving ban.

"I really don't know any politician who is better at getting his points across," the Liberal Democrat leader joked at a lunch of journalists, before adding quietly: "That's got him back for Calamity Clegg".

He was referring to Mr Huhne's team seeking to tag him "Calamity" during the Lib-Dem leadership battle in 2007.

Mr Huhne denies the allegation that his now estranged wife took points on her licence to protect him.

The Deputy Prime Minister could also not resist a stinging attack on Labour leader Ed Miliband whose recent performances have left Labour MPs moaning into their beer. 

Contrasting Mr Miliband's woes to the claims about Manchester United star Ryan Giggs' alleged infidelity, he quipped: "One is a fading left winger who has had a bad time in the media . . . The other is Ryan Giggs."

 Nicholas Cecil

Update: Joe Murphy writes:  Cleggie's humour appeared to falter slightly when he saw that mayoral wannabe Lembit Opik was my guest.  I asked what qualities he would look for in a London mayoral candidate - and how the party could cut through againstr Boz and Ken ... On the first part, he mused dangerously "Welsh, Estonian ..?" before saying that it should be someone who knows London well and could campaign on those issues. He ignored the second part of the question. 

15 June 2011 11:33 AM

Stark flood warning?

Walking past Chris Huhne's Energy and Climate Change department the other day, I spotted this sculpture of a man riding a dolphin above the door.

Given the predictions of melting polar ice caps, do they know something we don't? Is this the vision of transport in a globally-warmed age?

Craig Woodhouse
Follow me on Twitter @craigawoodhouse