POLITICS

Defending The Banks And Now Big Energy, Why Does Angela Knight Do It?

16/04/2014 09:30 BST | Updated 16/04/2014 14:59 BST
John Stillwell/PA Archive
Angela Knight the Chief Executive of the British Bankers Association reads a statement outside the Supreme Court in Westminster central London, after High Street banks won their appeal over unauthorised overdraft charges.

Angela Knight has forged a career on defending the seemingly indefensible, having fought for the Tories in John Major's government, then the banks just after the financial crash, and now the energy companies.

"It is true and I put it on my CV - I do difficult jobs," she quips. Knight is currently chief spokesman for the energy industry as head of the Energy UK trade body, not the easiest industry to represent in the public eye.

After a string of news stories about rising bills, Labour leader Ed Miliband set public debate alight about energy companies last September with his pledge to freeze energy bills for two years.

Knight praises the Labour leader for "sensing the mood" among consumers about rising bills, adding: "Nobody was talking about the reasons for the price rises." Miliband, she says, seized a "god-given opportunity of something people don’t like, an industry you can pin it on and the government of the day not actually framing particularly strongly in that policy area, and then ka-boom!"

The 64-year-old unsurprisingly shares her industry colleagues' scorn for the pledge, quipping that she thought he would announce it this September rather than last year "as you'd only have five months before the general election for it to then unravel".

Does she share Energy secretary Ed Davey and energy giant bosses' concern that the move would increase the chances of blackouts breaking out across Britain?

"We do have to be careful what we do and how we do it. You don't need much in there to cause investors to say 'I think I'm going to wait to see what happens'."

Scottish Independence? 'It's A Bit Of A Nightmare'

Many businesses have already warned that Scottish independence could cause major uncertainty for their operations, how does Knight feel?

Knight struggles to hide her concern about the administrative complications, suggesting that it could increase costs for the energy companies that they may have to pass to consumers.

"For the energy industry, a single market called Great Britain is actually important, particularly when Scotland, England and Wales have not developed their energy market as part of a whole and regulatory policy needs to be the same if Scotland votes for independence."

"There needs to be a clarification on what happens to the subsidies for renewables as subsidies are socialised across the population. If you separate the country into two parts, then what are you going to do about the legal and regulatory issues and who licenses who and for what? Who licenses a generator in Scotland that supplies its electricity to England? It's a bit of a nightmare.

"If we end up with two regulators, two different sets of license conditions and customer requirements, two wholesale markets and all that sort of thing, it is inevitably adding costs to the system."

Supermarket giants were caught up in political controversy amid claims that they could be forced to hike food prices due to higher distribution costs in Scotland. Would energy companies face a similar burden?

"There are certainly some issues on these sorts of overheads and the practicalities of the operation which would be better left in the same sort of model as they are at the moment rather than changed," Knight says.

Knight and her colleagues have reached out to the Scottish government for answers, albeit with limited success. "The SNP are developing their thinking right now. They're not going to answer detailed questions until they know where they've got to," she says.

The Europe Question

Another referendum businesses are increasingly watching out for is on Britain's place in the European Union. Eurosceptic parties like Ukip, which is expected to do well in this May's European elections, argue that business would naturally embrace leaving the political bloc due to the freedom to negotiate trade deals with the rest of the world.

Knight says that debate on Britain's place in Europe is "not really" damaging for energy companies, as much of the UK's energy policy is still decided over independently.

"It's up to us to decide if we want nuclear and gas taking a bigger chunk of generation than say solar and wind. A hiatus in investor perspective is more about local uncertainty than it is about the UK's position in Europe because of the way the UK's decisions are made."

However, Knight warns that the impact of a smaller party like Ukip taking seats away from the main parties could complicate matters.

"An outcome which would undoubtedly be difficult would be if the European Parliament becomes composed of a large number of smaller parties because when that happens, coherency is not as good as it needs to be."

"Although energy is a competency which still sits with separate countries, there is a chunk that is decided on a pan-European basis which we could see get in quite a muddle."

Knight knows all too well about arguments over Europe, as she was a Tory MP during the 1990's when the Conservative party was caught up in rows over the Maastricht Treaty and the European Exchange Rate Mechanism.

She drily notes how the party looked "divided", although the debate was dominated by vocal Eurosceptics: "You’ll be able to name those who are very strongly taking part in the European debate and then there was the other 250 of us."

Knight also served as a Treasury minister from 1995 to 1997 under the famously Europhile chancellor Ken Clarke. But she brushes aside any suggestion that she was influenced by her former boss, who only recently mocked Eurosceptics as "eccentric".

angela knight

Knight, then Tory MP for Erewash

"We weren't appointed to any ministry because of our views on Europe, you were appointed to a ministry because you were appointed to a ministry," she insists.

Is the modern Tory party as obsessed about Europe as it was back in her day? "You’ll have to ask the politicians,' the former politician insists.

We Shouldn't Be "Messianic" About Green Energy

Knight laments the Tories' weak initial response to Ed Miliband's energy price freeze, suggesting that the Lib Dem influence meant they struggled before finding a "good argument".

"We had thought that their response would have been stronger and harder both on the facts of the issue and the politics," she muses. "It may be something about the coalition."

David Cameron and fellow ministers initially derided Miliband's pledge as "Marxist", before changing to argue that it would increase costs for energy firms and end up pushing up bills.

Knight points to a recent YouGov poll showing that most voters prefer the idea of having the lowest tariff, as the coalition advocates, rather than a price freeze, as Miliband suggests.

energypoll

I remind her that a previous YouGov poll found that 66% of Britons would support renationalising the energy companies.

She isn't too happy about that poll though, suggesting that those surveyed were not sufficiently aware of the "consequences" of nationalising the energy companies.

"If you say do you want to nationalise the energy companies and the answer is yes, then the question is 'how many billions do you want taken off public spending to pay the shareholders of those energy companies who a) are legitimate and b) mostly aren't in the UK anyway?'"

"Whilst I understand the gut instinct of let's nationalise the buggers, without people being shown the consequences, that has not presented to the participants a fair picture."

Knight builds on her point about people failing to get "proper balance" about energy, bemoaning the "messianic" advocates of green energy who "thought one windmill replaced one coal-fired power station".

"If people had the green energy policy all explained and not told that green is good and if you're not up for green then you're obviously bad and not have a messianic thing, then we may have got to a more balanced place."

David Cameron famously started as Tory leader burnishing his green credentials as he put a windmill on his house and posed with huskies in Norway.

david cameron husky

Cameron "hugs a husky" in 2006

Now in government, Cameron told officials to "cut the green crap' in a bid to reduce energy costs. Would Knight say 'green' Cameron was a mistake?

The normally forthright energy boss ducks the question. "I don't know. I'm not going to say anybody is right or wrong."

But Knight suggests that "an awful lot of MPs right across the political estate" failed to grasp "the costs, consequences and issues surrounding what they have voted for".

That 'green crap', alongside the doubling of wholesale gas prices, is what led to increased costs for consumers, she says.

"Just Because You Don't Like Something, It Doesn't Make It Wrong"

Angela Knight and her Energy UK colleagues seem to be all too aware of their unpopularity, but they wear that fact lightly and with good humour.

A series of cartoons by the Daily Telegraph's cartoonist Matt, picked out by Knight, decorate the industry group's hallway, all with captions joking about the energy debate and rising bills.

matt

'I opened our gas bill and the canary fainted'

Would she say speaking up for the energy sector has been her hardest job ever? Knight disagrees, recalling her first job after university in the male-dominated world of engineering when she worked in her early 20s at the chemicals giant Air Products.

But more recently? Knight says her hardest post "undoubtedly" was being head of the British Bankers' Association, the finance industry's trade body, especially as the financial crisis hit just months after she took over.

"At that time not only is there an industry issue but a sector issue and a country issue and the whole world speaks English and we've got a competitive media here and everybody was focusing on what's happening in the UK and I seemed to be the only person out there trying to do an explanation. That was not easy."

After fighting the repetitional firestorm of the financial crisis, Knight would be easily capable of defending the energy companies. "It is true, I put it on my CV - I do difficult jobs". Why on earth does she defend such causes? Because, she argues, everyone deserves a voice.

"What a weird, weird world we live in when where the job we are doing is difficult and one is trying to do clear and sensible explanations - that somehow you're wrong to do it?"

Does she get any abuse? Any threats? Apparently not. But she avoids Twitter, as "all you ever hear about it is nasty".

After losing her seat in 1997, Knight decided not to stay in Tory politics as she wanted to spend more time with her two young sons, but she wasn't going to leave the political arena for good.

"I didn't get involved in politics just to be a one-term politician," she says. Her role in the energy industry confirms she is still part of the political fray.

Knight is bullish about the fight the energy industry has on its hands to get a hearing. "Just because you don't like something, it doesn't make it wrong. We don’t like to have to pay for things but we have to pay for things.

“The energy industry plays a vital role in the UK economy on for the population as a whole. Energy is used to heat our homes and run our businesses. The energy sector is a large consistent contributor to the UK’s finances paying £24 billion in direct taxation alone in 2012, it supports around 644,000 jobs and enrols over 1400 people annually onto its apprenticeship programmes.”

"People are owed a proper explanation, not a truncated explanation. Criticise where criticism is due but not where it's not so only then would you get a balanced open discussion that we need."

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