Yesterday Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave his speech to the Conservative Party Conference, a somewhat muted affair given the lack of audience. The speech, which you can read in full here, is more characteristically Johnson than most of his recent official pronouncements. It’s funny, optimistic and jingoistic, if that’s the sort of thing you look for in a politician – and apparently British voters do or Boris Johnson wouldn’t have a career.
It has some awkward moments too. “We believe in our fantastic armed services as one of the greatest exports this country has” is going to ring rather hollow in Yemen, for example. And there’s something really rather sinister about the demonising of “lefty human rights lawyers and other do-gooders”.
Still, the reason I wanted to mention the speech is this bit:
“I can today announce that the UK government has decided to become the world leader in low cost clean power generation – cheaper than coal, cheaper than gas; and we believe that in ten years time offshore wind will be powering every home in the country, with our target rising from 30 gigawatts to 40 gigawatts.”
He went on to promise £160 million to support ports and factories to build turbines, and suggested that Britain would have 15 times as much floating wind power by 2030 as the rest of the world combined.
This is a remarkable turnaround. There was a bit in Johnson’s speech where he condemned anti-wind attitudes of the past: “I remember how some people used to sneer at wind power, twenty years ago, and say that it wouldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding”. He neglected to mention that he was quoting himself there, and far more recently than 20 years ago. In 2013 he told a radio show that “Labour put in a load of wind farms that failed to pull the skin off a rice pudding” and that the future was in shale gas.
Boris Johnson has apparently noticed wind power for the first time, and “decided to become the world leader” in it. There is an irony here. Johnson is constantly claiming world leadership for all sorts of things, from 5G coverage to track-and-trace systems, often with no evidence to support that claim. One of the few things that Britain actually does lead the world on is offshore wind power, and he hadn’t noticed.
This new attention is of course very welcome, though incomplete. All Johnson’s claims are for offshore wind power, while onshore wind remains the cheapest form of energy in the country, and is far more popular than many people think.
And secondly, the claims are incomplete because there are no policies to back any of this up yet. Declaring Britain the Saudi Arabia of wind is one thing, seeing it through it quite another. And £160 million in investment is minuscule in the grand scheme of things. That’s the cost of one Royal Navy patrol boat, a third of an Easyjet bailout, or three summer transfers for Chelsea football club. £160 million does not buy you a green industrial revolution.
So it would be wise to wait and see what policies and funding there is to actually put wheels under Johnson’s rhetoric. But we have waited a long time to hear a Prime Minister enthuse about green energy, and that in itself is worth celebrating.