Energy-intensive manufacturers have welcomed the appointment of Peter Hain as energy minister, believing he will be an asset to their campaign for government action over soaring gas prices.
Hain was given the energy portfolio at the Department of Trade and Industry in the reshuffle that followed Peter Mandelson’s resignation — for the second time — from the Cabinet last week.
Political commentators suggested the move was a demotion for Hain. In his previous role at the Foreign Office, his strong opinions and forthright speaking were becoming an embarrassment to the government.
His strident opposition to the proposed US anti-missile defence system, and the diplomatic row that followed his recent criticism of the South African government’s policy of ‘constructive engagement’ towards Zimbabwe, were particularly cited as reasons for his perceived demotion.
The latter episode — which reportedly put the state visit later this year of South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki in jeopardy —was a neatly ironic twist for one who had led anti-apartheid protests in the UK from the 1960s.
The big gas users, however, seem to believe Hain’s plain speaking will advance their cause.
‘The initial reaction has been quite positive, because Peter Hain is seen as someone who’s inclined to speak his mind,’ said Jeremy Nicholson, economic adviser to the Energy Intensive Users’ Group.
According to Nicholson, the EIUG, which is leading the campaign to persuade the government to act over gas prices, did not feel that the issue had been passed on to a demoted minister by default. ‘That’s not how it’s been received by most of our members,’ he said.
Peter Scott, the director-general of the Confederation of Paper Industries, said he also felt the portents were good, despite the drawbacks of a ministerial change just as the issue was threatening to come to a head.
‘Obviously, the transfer hasn’t come at the optimum time,’ he said, but added that Hain’s reputation as a straight talker and tenacious campaigner would be of great potential value to the industry campaign.
‘If he latches on to the concerns we have, we would hope to see action sooner rather than later,’ Scott added.
A delegation from the CPI met Hain on Wednesday to give him his first industry briefing on the subject, and firmer opinions will be formed in its wake.
‘We will be forming an opinion fairly soon, but at this stage we’re being open minded,’ said Judith Hackett, business and environment director at the Chemical Industries Association. ‘We certainly hope he will pick up where Helen Liddell left off on the gas issue.’
Hain said he was delighted to have the chance to address ‘bread and butter’ issues that affect people’s lives.
However, he will not be able to escape his activist past in relation to one aspect of his new brief — nuclear power.
David Heathcoat-Amory, the shadow trade and industry secretary, wrote last week to trade secretary Stephen Byers to express concern over Hain’s opposition to nuclear weapons — he remains a member of CND — and his call in 1986 for Labour to oppose the continuation of the nuclear energy programme.
Heathcoat-Amory said: ‘I do not believe he can carry out his duties in that role in an objective way when he has professed views and positions against the industry as a whole.’
Hain responded by saying he had no intention of resigning from CND and would not be dictated to by ‘Tory nonentities’. He added that he was 100% behind the government’s energy policy ‘which contains a nuclear energy element’.
While government policy is obviously at odds with CND’s position, Hain insisted his membership of the organisation would not influence his decisions.
A British Nuclear Fuels spokesman would only say that Hain’s appointment was ‘entirely a matter for government’ and that the company ‘looks forward to working with him’.
Nicholson at the EIUG pointed out that Hain is unlikely to have to make any important decisions in the nuclear arena during his tenure. ‘I think in practical terms this is a non-issue,’ he said.