The Sketch: Renewable energy? More like renewable policies, it appears

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The Independent Online

For those of us who still pronounce it "nuculer", it was pretty heavy going yesterday. I thought I'd understood what John Hutton's statement meant, but then Steve Webb for the Liberals said that he hadn't understood it and so I assumed I hadn't understood it enough to realise what I hadn't understood.

I was under the impression they were announcing the start of a government-sponsored programme to build a new generation of nuclear power stations. But in answer to Chris Mullin, the minister said what he was doing was "not ruling out this technology in perpetuity". That didn't seem quite the same thing. And how many power stations did he think there might be in 10 or 15 years? "Several" was the word he used.

It had been billed as one of the tough long-term decisions the Prime Minister had taken. Actually, I think the decision was taken four or five years ago round about the time Bruce George (I think it was Bruce George) asked Tony Blair out of a clear blue sky at the Liaison Committee whether we needed more nuclear power stations.

But Gordon Brown came in for the statement. Showing respect to Parliament. Steering the country into the long-term. Grinning wolfily at the Tories whom he had manoeuvred into agreeing with him.

His back bench didn't fall into the same trap.

Elliot Morley (ex-environment minister) asked why no energy companies had tried to open a new nuclear facility in the past decades. What had changed? Michael Meacher (ex-environment minister) noted the £5bn paid to bail the industry out of bankruptcy and the £70bn we still owe on waste disposal. Steve Webb quoted Margaret Beckett (ex-environment minister) who'd ruled out nuclear because it would mean we'd never meet our renewables target if we put the money into the other industry. John Gummer – at last, an ex-environment minister who was in favour! – but only if his constituents had their own local inspector to whom they could complain in person; failing that, they'd kill the proposals at the planning stage.

Will the Government provide a firm price for carbon? That's the key to the economics, it seems. If politicians are so fundamentally involved as to be setting prices (a practice with a colourful history) it cannot succeed. That's a "lesson to be learnt". And relearnt every generation.

Paul Flynn's bafflement played well and so did Chris Mullin's vague but convincing fear. "One reason for scepticism is the industry's long history of misleading the public and the Government about costs." He has learnt the lesson.

The minister has guaranteed not a penny of subsidy will go to the industry; the one thing we know is it will cost the taxpayer billions.