David Cameron has pledged the Government will do “everything it can” to help Britain’s troubled steel industry - before jetting off to the US.
The Government is under pressure to intervene after Indian giant Tata announced it will offload its loss-making British plants amid fears as many as 40,000 jobs are in jeopardy.
But the Tory government is facing criticism, less for whether it should intervene but more for its handling of a crisis that has long been brewing.
The Prime Minister this morning expressed “deep concern” over the future of the Port Talbot plant in South Wales, the UK’s biggest steelworks losing £1 million a day amid competition from cheap imports and high energy costs.
"Those jobs are vital to workers' families, vital to those communities and the Government will do everything it can working with the company to try and secure the future of steelmaking in Port Talbot and across our country, it's a vital industry,” he said following an emergency summit at Downing Street.
But confusion reigns. What exactly is the plan? Who is talking to who? Where are ministers? Here are six reasons why the Government’s response has been questionable.
1. The PM was on holiday. He’s now heading to Washington
Cameron returned from his holiday in the Canary Islands yesterday - as scheduled - and today held an early morning “mini-summit” with “key” ministers. Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, was in Paris for the G20.
As soon as it finished, around 10am, the Prime Minister was planning to leave for the US for the Nuclear Security Summit, a meeting of global leaders to discuss how to prevent terrorists getting hold of radioactive material.
Few would deny the importance of the meeting and protecting nuclear facilities from cyber attack, but it perhaps undermines the doing “everything it can” line.
2. The minister in charge was ordered back from Australia
Port Talbot’s D-Day was in the diary. Tata bosses met on Tuesday in Mumbai to decide whether to endorse a rescue plan for the plant. Yet Business Secretary Sajid Javid, the Cabinet minister ultimately in charge of industry in government, opted to fly to Australia as part of a trade mission Down Under.
The “grip ‘n’ grin” picture of the minister with the Australian PM, just a couple of hours after the hammerblow news was announced, was arguably mis-judged.
Javid spent only 15 hours in Australia - having spent twice that time flying there - before being told to get back to the UK. He is still on the plane. Not a good look.
3. Mixed messages over re-nationalising steel
With Javid Down Under, it was left to junior business minister Anna Soubry to do the media rounds and explain what the Government was doing to help. It prompted more questions than provided answers.
On the BBC’s flagship Today programme, Soubry appeared uncertain over whether the Scottish government had stepped in to save two steel plants north of the border, and suggested temporary state ownership of the plants - a big step, especially for a Tory administration - was an “option”.
Did the minister “mis-speak”? When Sajid succumbed to requests for an interview, he appeared to rule it out. “I don’t think that nationalisation is going to be the solution,” he told journalists.
With a similar message emanating from Cameron today, the question remains: what is the the plan?
4. No ministers went to Mumbai for the crunch talks
Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, whose constituency includes Port Talbot, has accused ministers of being “more concerned with China” than Tata, accusing ministers of a “total lack of engagement”. Kinnock himself met Tata bosses in India - along with Roy Rickhuss, the general secretary of the Community steelworkers’ union – twice, including at 1.30am after the board agreed its decision.
"Not just over the last few weeks and days, but actually over the last five years, the Government has been asleep at the wheel and has been more interested in rolling out the red carpet for China, than it has been in standing up for British steelworkers,” he told BBC Breakfast this morning. “I think that Tata Steel find that extraordinary".
China, a huge investor in the UK, has been accused of “dumping” cheap steel around the world to crowd out competition.
5. Critics say it could have done more
The UK Government remains opposed to the EU axing the so-called “lesser-duty” rule - which would allow increased tariffs to be placed on Chinese steel to counteract “dumping”.
Javid has claimed it would lead to higher prices for steel consumers in the UK, but a spokesman for EUROFER, the European Steel Association, told HuffPost UK it was shocked at the Government’s continued anti-tariff stance: “We can’t really understand why they can’t do whatever it takes to fix the system. They had the opportunity. Scrapping the lesser duty rule is a huge difference.”
Meanwhile, Osborne has been criticised for removing from his Budget a tax break that would have helped steelmakers and other heavy industries.
6. Jeremy Corbyn has been made to look good
Despite Labour’s recent tendency to self-destruct, the Opposition’s response has been a lesson to the Government. Jeremy Corbyn broke off from his holiday in Devon to go to Port Talbot, and spoke to workers directly at the plant’s social club. He launched an online petition to “save steel” that has already gained 100,000 signatures - backed by even his “hostile” MPs.
Of course, some will sniff that a petition which guarantees nothing and a warm words from a party that has no levers of power to pull in Westminster counts for little. But state intervention is his strong suit, and he’s played it better.