Chris Huhne attacks Tory hard right
Tuesday 20 September 2011
Chris Huhne has launched a scathing attack on the Tory hard right, bracketing them with the "madcap" American Tea Party movement and warning they will "wreck the nation's economy".
The Energy Secretary used his speech to round on Conservatives who "slaver over tax cuts for the rich" and claimed if they failed to compromise Britain's economic recovery would be "put in peril".
Mr Huhne's criticism is the most explicit verbal assault made from the conference platform by a senior Liberal Democrat on their coalition partners this week.
He said: "This coalition government saved Britain's credit standing by compromise.
"The danger if you don't compromise is now clear from America.
"There the markets looked over the brink when the mad-cap Republican right in Congress would not compromise with the President.
"Let that be a warning to the Conservative right here - we need no Tea Party Tendency in Britain.
"If you fail to compromise, if you fail to seek the common ground that unites us, if you insist that only you have the answers, if you keep beating the anti-European drum, if you slaver over tax cuts for the rich, then you will put in peril the most crucial achievement of this Government.
"You will wreck the nation's economy and common purpose.
"We are all in this together and we can't get out of it alone."
He added: "Whatever we think of the Conservative campaign in the alternative vote referendum, and I for one thought that the vilification of Nick was appalling, for Liberal Democrats compromise is not and cannot be a dirty word."
In a direct challenge to eurosceptic Tories, Mr Huhne also vowed that the Lib Dems would not allow the Government to weaken links to Europe.
Earlier this month new intake Conservatives formed a group to press the case for repatriating some powers from Brussels and Foreign Secretary William Hague admitted looser ties could benefit the UK.
Mr Huhne said: "Being part of Europe is not a political choice. It is a geographical reality.
"It always was and until the tectonic plates break up, it always will be.
"We will not, as Liberal Democrats in government, weaken the ties that deliver our national interest through Europe."
Mr Huhne's attack came during his keynote conference speech, where he pledged to "hold course to be the greenest government ever".
He told activists ministers are poised to order energy suppliers to pay customers unlimited refunds to compensate for "bad behaviour" and confirmed tough new powers for energy watchdog Ofgem that will allow it to stop companies blocking reforms.
Mr Huhne, who was criticised for saying at the weekend that families "do not bother" to hunt for bargains on gas and electricity, will also announce changes that will make it easier for consumers to switch suppliers so they can lower their bills by up to £200 a year.
He also insisted that the Government's energy policies will mean consumers will be "better off" in 2020 in an attempt to denounce claims bills would rocket.
"We are determined to get tough with the big six energy companies to ensure that the consumer gets the best possible deal," he said.
"We want simpler tariffs. Requiring energy companies to tell you whether you could buy more cheaply on another tariff. And you could save real money.
"I want to help households save money, simpler charging, clearer bills, quicker switching and more consumer-friendly firms - co-ops, partnerships, consumer charities - dedicated to doing the shopping around for consumers to make sure that you are always on the best deal, even if you do not have time to check yourself.
"I believe Ofgem should have new powers to secure redress for consumers - money back for bad behaviour - and we will stop the energy companies from blocking action by Ofgem, which can delay matters by a year."
Mr Huhne said that energy companies had agreed to add information on to bills this winter that will direct customers on how to switch to cheaper tariffs.
It comes ahead of plans to force them next year to set out exactly how much customers could save by switching to a different tariff offered by their own supplier.
He said: "It is not fair that big energy companies can push their prices up for the vast majority of their consumers - who do not switch - while introducing cut-throat offers for new customers that stop small firms entering the market.
"That looks to me like predatory pricing. It must and will stop."
Conceding that households were struggling to make ends meet, he insisted that cutting carbon "is not a luxury to be ditched when the going gets tough".
Investing in the green energy industry would also help fuel the UK's economic recovery, he argued.
Referring to the great depression that followed the 1929 economic crash he said: "In the Thirties, we did not create new jobs by bringing back the textiles, coal and iron jobs that were lost.
"We created new jobs in new industries and the same is happening today. Every month, more than 300,000 people leave the unemployment register to find new jobs.
"Thousands of those jobs are now in the low carbon economy. It is our route to recovery. Green business is good business."
Richard Lloyd, executive director at Which?, said: "With many people facing price hikes of 10% to 20% this winter, Government action on rocketing energy bills will be overdue but welcome. For the millions struggling in fuel poverty, help can't come soon enough this winter.
"Giving people information on their bills about cheaper tariffs is a step towards helping people to manage spiralling energy costs. However, when 60% of domestic energy customers never switch, the Government and Ofgem must now take action to inject genuine competition into the energy market.
"Serious questions must be asked about whether the major suppliers' customer bases will need to be broken up in order to achieve a competitive market."
CBI director-general John Cridland said: "Competitive energy markets benefit businesses and consumers. Energy customers should be helped to get the best deal and we support easier switching of accounts.
"At a time when world energy prices are rising, energy companies are promoting energy efficiency, and introducing smart meters and low-cost insulation to help consumers reduce bills.
"We must remember that prices also reflect the critical need for energy investment for a low-carbon future, where there are opportunities for new entrants to the market. But we do need ministers to be crystal clear on energy policy if vital business investment is to be secured."
Juliet Davenport, chief executive of 100% renewable electricity supplier Good Energy, said: "The traditional approach to energy is clearly broken and needs fixing.
"We need to move towards a decentralised energy market which can provide the UK with resilience against price volatility caused by relying on energy imported from abroad.
"Good Energy welcomes Chris Huhne's desire to increase competition. By encouraging more independent organisations to generate electricity, small suppliers won't have to buy from the Big Six, ensuring that the consumer gets the best possible deal in the end."
Louise Hutchins, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace, said: "At last, Chris Huhne has taken some steps to tackle the big six energy companies as they continue to rip off the public. But tinkering at the edges won't be enough.
"As long as this cartel is allowed to use their stranglehold and influence in Whitehall, our energy bills and inflation will continue to soar as they keep Britain hooked on ever more expensive imported fossil fuels.
"Serious Government backing for cutting-edge renewable energy industries and energy-efficient technologies would break the energy giants' grip on consumer purses and help bring household bills under control.
"We will know the Government is starting to get serious when it toughens up its lame energy efficiency legislation currently in Parliament and gives real lending powers to the new Green Investment Bank."
Mr Huhne later denied his speech was "conference grandstanding" - and claimed the Lib Dems were "moderating" the Tories.
He told BBC Radio 4's World at One: "What it's pointing out is that a coalition government has to represent the views of all of the votes that support that government in the House of Commons and of the Lords.
"When I see on the Conservative right groups of people beginning to say we need to take the opportunity of the eurozone crisis to unpick some of the arrangements which we already have with the European Union, that alarms me and alarms a lot of people in the Liberal Democrats.
"We don't intend to let that happen."
He admitted the language he used "dramatised" the differences between the two coalition parties, and claimed the Lib Dems had restrained their more popular partners.
"If there was a single party, Conservative government then the position of the people who are pushing to disentangle us from our existing commitments in Europe... would be much more in the ascendancy.
"It's important people understand the Liberal Democrats have a key role in ensuring the moderation of the Government."
He said his "warning to the Conservative right" was designed to urge them not "to threaten" the coalition's mission in tackling Britain's economic crisis.
Nick Clegg was asked about Mr Huhne's comments about the "Tea Party tendency" during a visit to a hospital in Birmingham later.
"All political parties have different wings," he said. "And the point that Chris was making, whether you like the choice of words or not, was a very simple one - which is, in a coalition government compromise is the glue that holds the government together.
"It is important that all of us, all sides in the coalition realises, that compromise is necessary."
He went on: "Of course from time to time political parties will say, 'oh well, we want to act as if we won a majority. Nobody did."
Pressed on whether he agreed with the choice of words, Mr Clegg replied: "We will all choose our own words...
"I'm not there to vet the individual words of senior Liberal Democrats."
Ukip leader Nigel Farage called Mr Huhne a "dishonest fool" for arguing that being part of Europe was a geographical reality rather than a political choice.
He said: "Yes, the people of Britain have no issue with Europe, but with the European Union, and he knows it. Nobody is suggesting that we dynamite the Channel Tunnel.
"His cheap and ignorant attack on the majority of the British public who want to end our subservient relationship with the European Union should be and will be treated with the contempt he deserves.
"He is talking geography, we are talking about history. He is a fool, and a dishonest one at that, if he thinks that we are so stupid."
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