There will be jolly procedural japes in the Commons later today, after a more-than-usually anticipated Prime Minister’s Questions. Labour has two Opposition Day debates on the Order Paper, of which the second is a “Ban on Fracking for Shale Gas Bill”.
Keir Starmer is thus seeking to ban an activity which isn’t taking place, and there is a bit of a back story about why he is seeking to do so. The 2019 Conservative Manifesto declared that “we placed a moratorium on fracking in England with immediate effect. Having listened to local communities, we have ruled out changes to the planning system. We will not support fracking unless the science shows categorically that it can be done safely.”
That last sentence offered Boris Johnson a potential route to fracking, but one of the manifesto’s purposes was to close down hostages to fortune. It did so successfully. Fracking was dead in the water, or rather in the ground.
Kwasi Kwarteng communicated the Government’s hostility to it during an interview with this site last year. “Walls were shaking and plates were falling off them,” the then Business Secretary said of Cuadrilla fracking in Lancashire.
There had been support for fracking from the Coalition and Cameron governments; backing for a relaxation of planning laws under Theresa May; legal action against her Government on the matter, and opposition to fracking proposals from some 20 Conservative MPs who planned a Commons rebellion against them.
Johnson promptly dropped the fracking experiment almost as soon as he became Prime Minister. And there the matter rested, more or less, until the recent leadership election – when Liz Truss said of the future of fracking that “I think it depends on the local area, and whether there is support in the local area for it”. She was firming up her base on the right of the party within which, broadly speaking, there seems to be more support for fracking than on its left.
In one sense, Truss was showing a carelessness with the manifesto which she demonstrated elsewhere during the contest (for example, over housing), and which has come back to haunt her.
This is because pledges which have no basis in the manifesto at best, and may contradict it at worst, risk shipwreck in the House of Lords, which can argue that the Salisbury Convention doesn’t apply to them.
In another sense, however, Truss was promising much less than she seemed to be. For given the history of opposition to fracking that I describe, not least among Tory MPs, local support for projects looks very unlikely. But Starmer and Ed Miliband, who is using green issues to support his standing among Labour MPs, spotted the political opportunity – and swooped.
So it came about that anti-fracking Conservatives were suggesting last week that up to 40 Tory MPs could vote with Labour today. Not so long ago, it was unheard of for Conservative MPs to support a Labour motion in the Commons. But in this age of consumer politics, the Opposition have become more skilled, as have lobby groups, in putting constituency pressure on MPs, especially through social media.
Labour has also found new ways of turning the screw on the Goverment in the Commons – of which this afternoon’s device of presenting a Bill is one. The manoeuvre is designed to put Tory MPs more visibly on the spot.
In current circumstances, today’s vote will also be seen as a means of measuring discontent about the Truss premiership. There is a Richter scale for Commons rebellions as well as for real earthquakes.
Which takes us to fracking itself. Its supporters argue that if governments really want energy security in Britain, plus cheaper bils, they should follow the example of America, which has made itself less reliant on foreign autocracies by deploying shale – and lowered carbon emissions into the bargain.
Supporters of fracking argue that it would not take up that much space, and each pad would be less than the size of two football pitches. Opponents claim that it would entail thousands of vehicle movements, the removal of street furniture, acres of land, the erection of buildings and huge lighting fixtures, plus pipelines and decommissioning costs – which might have to be covered by taxpayers.
There’s a lot of politics in fracking, as there is in everything else – and I’m not referring simply to local opinion, as expressed, for example, by Conservative-controlled Fylde Council, home to the Cuadrilla experiment mentioned earlier in this piece.
(The council has called on the Government to “set out how local consent will be ascertained” and to “demonstrate the manifesto commitment of 2019”, which sounds less than supportive of Truss’s position.)
More widely, a combination of renewables producers and Vladimir Putin have lobbied separately against fracking. Contracts and profits for natural gas would imply fewer for wind turbines, for example. And a Britain more able to tap into its own gas would be a Britain less reliant on the Russian tyrant.
Fracking’s backers have floated experimental means of garnering local support – free gas; royalties from extraction; payments from producers into community funds; local referendums. Until or unless some or all of these are tried, here is no means of knowing whether residents prefer the bird in the hand (what they have now) to two in the bush (cash in hand now minus the possibility of lower house prices later).
Then there are earthquakes. The heaviest of these in Lancashire came in at 2.9 on the Richter scale – “which by definition, is not the “mildest” of tremors,” Peter Franklin wrote on this site.
Nonetheless, coal produces more earthquakes than fracking, at least according to 38 Degrees, which is campaigning against the proposed Cumbrian coal mine.
But that argument is capable of cutting two ways. Not so long ago, coal was a major source of British electricity, until a combination of pit closures, declining viabilty, and Arthur Scargill killed the industry. If Britain could put up with tremors for coal, why can’t it do so with those for fracking?
This returns us to the rise of more effective local campaigning by interest groups, and more fretful MPs in an age from which deferential politics long ago departed. It seems to me that anti-fracking campaigners are right to say that, because of the Europe-wide energy market, a domestic fracking industry would have little impact on prices. But that their pro-fracking opponents have the better of the argument about energy security and resilience.
The bottom line is that a relatively small country with a restrictive planning system, such as our own, will only mirror a much larger one with a more permissive regime, such as America, in the wake of long years of campaigning and persuasion, if at all.
Truss’s campaign pledge was never likely to open the door to a domestic fracking industry. In the wider context of the mini-budget, market turbulence, the U-turn and calamitous polls, that door has slammed shut.
The damage that the new Prime Minister has inflicted on the Party’s ratings is too obvious to require pointing out. What may be less apparent is that it has caused her own most dedicated supporters. It may take years of opposition to get them back on the front foot.