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Monday, September 20, 2021

Is Brexit to blame for rising energy bills?

The headline from the Sun above appears to represent another broken promise by Boris Johnson. There are many explanations why energy bills are rising but the role of Brexit in that phenomena has not had a big enough profile. According to the Byline Times, this needs to be corrected:

As Mark Haller writes for West England Bylines, the UK has elected to remain outside the EU Internal Energy Market, even though a considerable amount of the country’s energy needs are met by Europe. As a result, the UK has lost significant control over prices, losing the ability to participate in the energy auctions that determine the cost of fuel. Indeed, almost half of the UK’s gas supply is imported from the continent.

There are undoubtedly a range of global factors, beyond Brexit that have contributed to the rising prices, namely: high demand for liquefied natural gas from Asia, low winds causing less renewable energy to be generated, and outages at some nuclear power stations.

However, these factors do not change the basic fact that Brexit has accentuated the problem, not least by reducing the UK’s ability to respond through the EU Internal Energy Market.

The website Epexspot – which provides data on energy markets in Europe – shows that energy auction prices are considerably higher in the UK compared to the rest of the continent.

Energy prices are increasing markedly across Europe – but the problem is particularly intense in the UK.

This is frustrating, given that politicians have been warned for years of energy prices rising after Brexit, in the event that close harmony wasn’t maintained with the continent.

In March, the House of Lords EU Environment Sub-Committee published a new report, warning that energy prices would rise due to the inefficiency of current cross-border electricity trading arrangements between the UK and Europe.

It states: “As an EU member state, the UK played a leading role in developing EU energy policies. These in turn shaped how the UK could pursue secure, affordable, and clean energy supplies. The UK was part of the [Internal Energy Market’s] price coupling arrangements for cross-border electricity trading as an EU member state, but left the arrangements at the end of the transition period. Great Britain is currently trading electricity with continental Europe and with the [single market] through less efficient arrangements.”

The Lords report echoes evidence produced by peers three years ago, in 2018, advising that the UK faced the prospect of energy shortages and increased energy bills, if the Brexit transition was not managed effectively.

This preceded further warnings from UK Power – an energy switching service – prior to the implementation of the UK-EU post-Brexit trade agreement in December 2020. The site cautioned that the EU could now restrict its exports to the UK in the event of cold temperatures and increased domestic demand – which “in turn could lead to shortages across the UK, alongside higher energy bills for households and businesses”.

The comments made by Johnson and Gove to the Sun in 2016 also claimed that taxes would be higher if the UK remained in the EU. In reality, ordinary people are being hit financially after its departure from the bloc.

Food for thought.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Johnson searches for a plan

It comes to no surprise to many of us that the Prime Minister has admitted that he hasn't a clue how to implement his main policy agenda. The Independent reports that two months ago, in Coventry, Boris Johnson admitted he has only “the skeleton” of a plan to level up the country, after being challenged that he had failed to set out how to tackle “entrenched inequalities”.

But do not fear, he has now employed a former Bank of England chief economist to breathe life into the troubled “levelling up” agenda, and he has renamed the housing ministry as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, because naming things always makes a difference. Unfortunately, this department no longer references local government in its name, a key component of any levelling up agenda.

As for levelling up itself, even Conservative MPs have admitted that the “slogan” lacks substance and is currently designed to “mean all things to all people”, as one put it. While Johnson has been accused of undermining it with spending cuts, a failure to devolve meaningful power and by “political bias” in handing out government funds.

That's a lot of u-turns the prime minister needs to execute if his new guru is to make this work.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Has Ed Davey overreached as the party's federal leader?

Back in 2000, when the then Welsh Liberal Democrats group of Assembly Members were considering entering into a coalition government with Labour, we were, at one point, gathered into Mike German's office for a telephone conference with the federal leader of the party, Charles Kennedy.

I am still unsure what those who arranged this meeting hoped to achieve. Maybe, it was considered that Charles could sway the waverers into taking the plunge. If that was the case then the organisers would have been sorely disappointed, for Charles had come to listen, not to exhort. 

He understood that the decision had to be taken in Wales, and that it was not his place to interfere. He may have been the federal leader. but that did not give him a mandate to tell the Welsh Party how to conduct its affairs.

Things have gone a bit downhill since then, with the Federal Party in 2019 dictating to Wales which seats they could and could not contest in the 2019 General Election, effectively overriding local party autonomy and driving some key activists out of the party. And then there is this intereview with the current federal leader, Ed Davey.

In this piece, Ed Davey is quoted as saying that the party's only Member of the Senedd (MS) is right not to be involved in deal talks with the Welsh government. Jane Dodds is sitting on the Senedd's opposition benches, which Ed believes, allows her to have a "distinctive message":

Asked if he would prefer the Welsh Liberal Democrat leader to be in the co-operation talks instead of Plaid, he said: "No."

Speaking ahead of his party's autumn conference, he told BBC Politics Wales: "Jane was right to say that she will be in opposition to the Labour Senedd government.

"I think that's right because we need to show that we've got a distinctive message."

He added: "There was no proposal that we would go into government and there's no option for her to do what Kirsty was able to do.

"I totally support Jane Dodds to say she wants to be an independent opposition, and get that Liberal Democrat voice for our priorities, whether it's for parents, carers or small businesses, or the environment".

Now, I don't know if Ed was authorised to say any of that, or if he was making it up on the hoof. It is certainly the case that none of the options he has dismissed have been discussed by the Welsh Party as a whole. More importantly, it isn't really his place to say one way or the other, as not only is he not the Welsh Liberal Democrats Leader, but he cannot know what is going on behind the scenes.

The Labour Government may be in talks with Plaid Cymru, but they are not going to want to put all their eggs in one basket, and in doing so. weaken their negotiating position. They will want to talk to Jane Dodds about their budget too, and she will have things she wants to achieve as an MS, that she can only get done through negotiation.

Has Ed Davey overreached by making those discussion more difficult? Will he stand back, as Charles Kennedy did and let the Welsh Party get on with whatever they want to do? He is going to look really silly if Jane Dodds does broker a budget deal with the Labour Government.

This basic failure to understand the devolution settlement and the federal nature of the party was one of the main reasons why I could not vote for Ed Davey as leader. So far my decision appears to be justified.

Friday, September 17, 2021

A climate change denier in the cabinet?

Boris Johnson has certainly surprised some commentators with the ruthlessness he employed in reshuffling his cabinet, however, his failure to scrutinise the views of some of his new senior ministers is par for the course, unless that is he doesnt really care.

As the Independent reports, the new Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, has a whole raft of unpopular opinions to her name. She is a long-time critic of the BBC, has argued that “left wing snowflakes are killing comedy” and “dumbing down panto”, and isa strong opponent of gay marriage. So far, so Tory.

More controversial however, must be the appointment of Anne-Marie Trevelyan as International Trade Secretary. As the Independent also reports, she has been accused of climate emergency denial after a series of tweets came to light in which she insisted the world was not getting hotter and dismissed global warming campaigners as “fanatics”:

In the messages, sent between 2010 and 2012, Anne-Marie Trevelyan approvingly quoted the work of groups which have rejected the mainstream scientific consensus that human activity is driving climate change.

And she stated that one such group had provided “clear evidence that the ice caps aren’t melting after all, to counter those gloom-mongers and global warming fanatics”.

Her elevation to the cabinet somes just weeks ahead of the COP26 UN conference being chaired by Boris Johnson in Glasgow, at which the prime minister is hoping to persuade countries from around the world to sign up to ambitious carbon-cutting targets. Let's hope that the other delegates have not been studying Trevalyan's history:

Her controversial comments on climate change date back to before she entered parliament in 2015, but after she had fought the previous general election as a Tory candidate

In one tweet, backing a campaign against wind farms in 2012, she said: “We aren’t getting hotter, global warming isn’t actually happening.”

And in another message she praised as “intelligent” an article about the “global warming myth” by the Climate Realists group, who argue that temperature rises cannot be blamed on manmade carbon emissions.

In 2011, she gave her support to outspoken climate emergency denier Lord Lawson for “hitting back” at then energy secretary Chris Huhne’s “ideological obsession with manmade climate change”.

Hardly the best choice for such a sensitive role.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Another dysfunctional Johnson relationship

The Independent reports on the views of Peter Ricketts, a former head of the Foreign Office, who believes that Boris Johnson’s refusal to rebuild the UK’s “dysfunctional relationship” with the EU is damaging foreign and security policy.

Ricketts says the prime minister’s “tactic” of trying to build closer links with national capitals instead “will not work” and must be rethought, with the bitter spats between London and Brussels since Brexit, making the task hugely difficult, and leaving trust is at a very low ebb:

The warning comes after the UK rebuffed a European Union push to negotiate a defence and security treaty alongside the Christmas Eve trade deal, believing it to be unnecessary.

In the months since, the ‘Partnership Council’ intended to pursue closer cooperation between the two sides has barely met – after the hardline David Frost was put in charge of EU policy.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, reportedly refused to hold a cross-Channel summit with the UK, because he believed that little could be achieved.

The warning from Lord Ricketts, also a former national security adviser, will come at a meeting of a Commons trade and business commission, which will hear from other experts about the challenges now facing British diplomacy.

The peer said, ahead of the session: “The tactic of trying to work with individual EU countries while maintaining a dysfunctional relationship with the EU will not work.

“We urgently need to rebuild cooperation starting with areas like foreign and security policy where our interests are obviously close.

“But that will take trust and trust cannot be built by either side engaging in megaphone diplomacy or failing to meet commitments already made. Unfortunately, trust is now at a very low ebb.”

Terry Reintke, the vice chair of the Greens-EFA Group in the European Parliament, said the chaos of Brexit “has certainly damaged this reputation and trust in the UK internationally”.

And Georgina Wright, head of the Europe Programme at the think-tank Institut Montaigne, said the UK was faced with having to “work doubly hard” to get countries to “pay attention to it”.

Theresa May had stressed the importance of a comprehensive foreign and security policy deal with the EU, but Mr Johnson dropped the policy.

His focus has been on striking new trade deals – after foreign, security and defence policy barely featured in the 2016 referendum campaign.

Mr Johnson believed bilateral working with the key EU member states would allow it to exert influence over the others and over the Brussels institutions.

Ministers have pointed to the UK’s muscle as a leading military power, with nuclear missiles, a permanent seat at the UN Security Council and access to the Five Eyes spy network with the United States.

But confidence has been dented by the public split with Washington over the shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan – which has revived calls for closer cooperation with the EU.

Brexit is really going well, isn't it?

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Unacceptable and savage slaughter must be outlawed

At a time when we are in the middle of a climate and ecological crisis the last thing that anybody wants to read about is the senseless slaughter of 1,500 dolphins in a cruel and barbaric hunt just 224 miles off the UK's coast.

But, as the Times reports, that is what has happened as a “superpod” of 1,428 Atlantic white-sided dolphins were killed at Skalabotnur in the North Atlantic archipelago. According to Sea Shepherd people in speed boats and on jetskis drove the superpod of dolphins for many hours over a distance of 45 km into shallow water where they were all killed:

Rob Read, chief operations officer at Sea Shepherd, said: “This is, we believe, the largest ever single hunt of dolphins or pilot whales in Faroese history — the next largest being 1,200 pilot whales back in 1940 — and is possibly the largest single hunt of cetaceans ever recorded worldwide

“For such a hunt to take place in 2021 in a very wealthy island community just 230 miles from the UK, with no need or use for such a vast quantity of undoubtedly contaminated meat, is outrageous.

“This happened also towards the end of this summer when the Faroese have already killed 615 long-finned pilot whales and their freezers are already full.

“It is no surprise therefore that this latest unprecedented hunt is being criticised in the Faroese media and even by many outspoken pro-whalers and politicians in the Faroe Islands.”

He said the death toll in Skalabotnur exceeded the total killed in any recent year by Japanese fishermen during their six-month dolphin and whale-killing season.

Sea Shepherd believe many of the participants in the slaughter did not have the licence required in the Faroes to conduct the killing. The licence involves specific training in how to kill pilot whales and dolphins quickly:

“Footage shows many of the dolphins were still alive and moving even after being thrown onshore with the rest of their dead pod,” the charity said.

It added that photos showed many of the dolphins had been run over by motorboats, suffering wounds from their propellers which would have resulted in a slow and painful death.

The hunting of whales and dolphins is an annual ritual in the Faroes that dates back a thousand years. An average of 1,500 dolphins are killed annually during their hunting season. Supporters argue that it reduces the amount of food that the islanders must import.

In July last year, the sea near the village of Hvalba in the Faroes turned red when 252 pilot whales and 35 white-sided dolphins were killed.

As the wildlife broadcaster, Chris Packham says, this is a grotesque act of unforgivable savagery wrought upon a highly intelligent, sentient, social animals. It is the twenty-first century, surely there should be an international agreement to outlaw this barbarism.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Another Boris Johnson white elephant scrapped

At last, a government cut I agree with. The Guardian reports that a controversial plan to build a tunnel between Scotland and Northern Ireland has been ditched before ground was broken.

They say the proposed link, described as the “world’s most stupid tunnel” by Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser Dominic Cummings, had a price tag of about £15bn and the backing of the prime minister. But an unnamed government official with knowledge of Treasury spending negotiations has told the Financial Times the plans are “dead, at least for now”:

Johnson was reportedly keen to link Northern Ireland to Great Britain as part of a broader vision to connect the constituent parts of the UK. But others have questioned whether the prime minister was genuine or seeking a distraction, noting that talk of bridging the Irish Sea follows similarly grandiose and ultimately undeliverable schemes he dreamed up while mayor of London.

Johnson first suggested connecting Stranraer in Scotland to Larne in Northern Ireland by bridge three years ago, an idea that was widely derided by engineers. Concerns were raised about the practicality of constructing a bridge across the stormy stretch of water, which is more than 1,000ft deep in places, and experts said it would require dozens of support towers at heights “never achieved anywhere in the world”.

The tunnel proposal was being considered by a transport connectivity review led by the Network Rail chair, Sir Peter Hendy; two engineering professors were commissioned to lead a feasibility study into a bridge or tunnel.

The High-Speed Rail Group (HSRG), composed of rail industry leaders, proposed tunnelling under the Irish Sea between Stranraer and Larne in its submission to the Hendy review. According to the HSRG, the tunnel would bind Northern Ireland closer to Great Britain and would “address problems in economic status of Northern Ireland post-Brexit”.

A new rail connection between Carlisle and Stranraer would be needed and the width of railway track in Ireland may need to be altered, the proposal said.

One would like to think that, unlike Johnson's Thames bridge idea, no public money was wasted on this nonsense but clearly there has been a feasibility study so that is unlikely. At least the idea was out out of its misery before serious money could be spent on it.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Are food shortages permanent?

Anybody doing the weekly shop has noticed that certain items are no longer available on supermarket shelves, and according to some experts that trend is to continue.

The Independent reports that he head of the Food and Drink Federation, Ian Wright, has said staff shortages – triggered by a combination of Covid and Brexit – have killed off the “just-in-time” delivery model. He claims food shortages in supermarkets and restaurants are “permanent” and shoppers will never again enjoy a full choice of items:

But Downing Street rejected the claim of a broken system and, in a potential hostage to fortune, predicted the shortages will be over by the festive season.

Pressed on whether the shortages will ease to allow people to enjoy a “normal Christmas”, Boris Johnson’s spokesman told The Independent: “I believe so, yes.”

The clash came as the government rebuffs calls to loosen post-Brexit immigration rules – to attract more HGV drivers, for example – insisting businesses must stop relying on EU workers.

But the hit to trade from leaving the EU and the pandemic was laid bare by new figures revealing trade with the bloc plunged in July, with exports £1.7bn lower than in July 2018 and imports down £3bn.

Worryingly, the UK is on course to fall out of Germany’s top 10 trading partners for the first time in 70 years, data issued by the German government revealed.

“The UK’s loss of importance in foreign trade is the logical consequence of Brexit. These are probably lasting effects,” said Gabriel Felbermayr, the president of the Institute for the World Economy.

In the UK, McDonald’s, Greggs, the Co-op and Ikea are just some of the big retailers that have struggled to supply products to their customers in recent weeks.

The CBI business group has warned the labour shortages behind the gaps on shelves and restaurant menus could last up to two years, without urgent government action.

The Food and Drink Federation stepped up that pressure when Mr Wright told a think tank event: “It’s going to get worse, and it’s not going to get better after getting worse any time soon.”

He then added: “The result of the labour shortages is that the just-in-time system that has sustained supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants – so the food has arrived on shelf or in the kitchen, just when you need it – is no longer working.”

The Prime Minister has put his neck on the line by predicting this will only be a temporary glitch, we will see if he is proved right or not. Only three and a half months to Christmas.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Breaking the rules

Boris Johnson is a serial rule-breaker, in fact he has built a career on his willigness to buck the trend when it is in his own interests. It is lttle surprise therefore to find that he tolerates similar traits in other members of his government.

Amongst those who like to do things their own way is Priti Patel, who was notoriously forced to step down as international development secretary in 2017 after it emerged she failed to be candid with Theresa May about 14 unofficial meetings with Israeli ministers, businesspeople and a senior lobbyist.

Whether Johnson takes the same approach as his predecessor in dealing with his Home Secretary's latest alleged indiscretion is another matter.

The Guardian reports that Priti Patel has been accused of being “reckless” and a “serial offender” in breaching the ministerial code after allegations she brokered a meeting between a billionaire Tory donor and British Airways:

The Sunday Mirror reported that Priti Patel arranged a meeting on 11 August at Heathrow airport’s Hilton Garden Inn, which is part of a chain owned by Tory donor Surinder Arora.

Arora, the founder and chairman of the Arora Group, was at the meeting along with his son Sanjay, the Arora strategy director; Arora chief financial officer, Carlton Brown; the chief executive of Dubai Airports, Paul Griffiths; and BA corporate affairs director, Lisa Tremble.

BA chief executive Sean Doyle was reportedly invited but could not attend.

But the Sunday Mirror reported there was no official from the Home Office present, as rules would dictate there should be if government business was discussed. The ministerial code states: “A private secretary or official should be present for all discussions relating to government business.

“If a minister meets an external organisation or individual and finds themselves discussing official business without an official present – for example at a social occasion or on holiday – any significant content should be passed back to the department as soon as possible after the event.”

A spokesperson for the home secretary said: “Details of all the home secretary’s relevant external meetings will be published in the usual way in accordance with the ministerial code.”

It is understood that Patel considered it a private meeting and that the lunch was declared to her private office.

There will no doubt be eyebrows raised at this latest incident given past behaviour, however whether it amounts to a breach of the code and whether Johnson can afford to lose his Home Secretary at this time, has yet to be seen.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

UK trade with EU falls sharply

The Guardian reports on official data that shows Britain’s trade with the EU falling sharply in July, with Brexit and the global pandemic driving exports £1.7bn lower than in July 2018 and imports falling by £3bn:

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) said the fall was largely driven by declines in medicinal and pharmaceutical products, which have been particularly hit by the need for separate regulatory approval post Brexit.

Experts said the latest ONS figures could be a sign that the UK is losing its overall competitiveness.

Compared with 2018, which the ONS describes as the most recent “stable” period in UK trade, the change in trading levels is stark.

In July, total exports of goods, excluding precious metals, fell by £300m because of a £900m (6.5%) fall in exports to the EU, the ONS said.

At the same time, exports to non-EU countries increased by £700m, not enough to compensate for the overall fall.

Although this may not have been on the side of the Boris Bus, experts had predicted these falls as a consequence of Brexit. It is just a shame that Ministers had stopped listening to experts by that point.

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