What now for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy?

14/02/20 | Blog
Engaged members at event

Does a new face at the helm of BEIS spell good news for our industry? Scottish Renewables member Message Matters’ Peter Duncan, himself a former Conservative MP, looks at Alok Sharma’s CV and asks “what now at 1 Victoria Street”?

Even before this week’s Cabinet reshuffle there had been widespread speculation that Andrea Leadsom would pay the price for her delayed and half-hearted backing for the PM’s negotiated deal with Europe and lose her short-lived role as BEIS Secretary.

Boris Johnson is a Prime Minister who demands unquestioning loyalty, and Leadsom had already failed that test.

But for the energy sector Leadsom was a continued sceptic on renewables policy and, in that respect, a fresh start should be welcomed.

Alok Sharma has passed Downing Street’s loyalty test, and now takes the helm.

He is a well-respected safe pair of hands from the junior ministerial ranks with a scientific background (a physics degree from the University of Salford), and a deal-making career in banking and consultancy

 Sharma has little track record on energy issues, perhaps something that will be seen as an advantage in Downing Street, and is likely to be open to new ideas, and to revisiting old government positions where there can be shown to be advantage in doing so.

Above all, he will draw an end to the sense of “interim” leadership under Andrea Leadsom.

The direction Sharma takes will be heavily influenced by COP26, of which he has been appointed the convenor, replacing Claire O’Neil, who was summarily sacked ten days ago amongst a wave of acrimony that left no doubt about her lack of loyalty to the Johnson project.

Johnson needs to make something of this climate conference.

His vision of the UK as a global player means that entrusting the role of chair to Sharma is seen as central, not a side show, to his ministerial responsibilities. The expectation is that he will want to lead, and be seen to be leading.

While Downing Street is now clearly in charge - directly - of all government departments, everyone expects Johnson to lead his Party to the centre ground. The loyalty that has been demanded and affirmed over the last 24 hours is meant to ensure that he can be a radical centrist and not face a challenge from the traditionalist wing of the Tory back benches

An obvious place for that policy change to be demonstrated is in climate and renewables policy, following on from some significant signalling of a radical edge in recent days with the foreshortening of the potential deadline for ending sales of petrol and diesel cars.

Sharma has little in his background that will prevent him grasping that agenda, in a way that Leadsom clearly could not. That is why change at BEIS was necessary.

Whilst restructuring of BEIS as a department has been shelved for now, insiders expect that scope for a radical change remains in play as a signal to the country to deploy after COP26 has passed. Almost everyone accepts that it cannot be business as usual thereafter.

Options include moving carbon policy and economic policy into greater alignment at the Treasury, which would be radical, but other options will remain in play.

Also of note in yesterday’s reshuffle was the departure of the former Chancellor and the appointment of Rishi Sunak as his replacement.

Some will say Sunak has agreed to be the “token Chancellor” when the PM will now effectively be running the Treasury.

Others will perhaps suggest that - given the circumstances - the PM can ill afford to lose Sunak this side of the next General Election, and he will therefore hold more power than might have been assumed.

Either way, his appointment is expected to take the brakes off major infrastructure investment, and long-term sustainable energy supply can be seen in that policy bracket.

Sunak will enthusiastically grasp hold of the mantle of Chancellor who ended austerity, but has no predetermined positions on future energy mix and related policy decisions.

Finally, Alister Jack remains as Secretary of State for Scotland – a stable influence in an unstable week.