Grant Shapps will swap his position as UK minister for energy security and net zero for the defence portfolio as a relative newcomer to UK politics, Claire Coutinho, takes his place in the latest Cabinet reshuffle announced by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
Formerly Minister for Children, Coutinho, who was only elected to the UK parliament in 2019, picks up the key energy portfolio as her first ever cabinet appointment.
Sunak appointed Shapps to the defence brief today, one month after his predecessor, Ben Wallace, had signalled his intention to stand down from that position.
The appointment is Shapps’ fifth different Cabinet role within a year and this fact, along with his own lack of familiarity with the defence brief, raised eyebrows among British political commentators.
With the UK heading for elections by the end of 2024, energy prices and transition policies are likely to be key electoral issues.
In the run-up to the COP26 event held in Glasgow in 2022, the UK government led by then-prime minister Boris Johnson, was keen to hold up its credentials as a leader in energy transition, with pioneering and ambitious net zero policies and planned bans on fossil fuel engines and heating systems.
The energy price spikes caused by Russia's war on Ukraine have brought the cost of living more closely into frame and Prime Minister Sunak has since expressed sympathy with an upswell of indignation expressed by some voters in the London area who have opposed special charges on higher emission vehicles.
While sticking to its net zero targets and a windfall tax on oil and gas companies, the UK government has also gone ahead with the licensing of new areas for oil and gas exploration and production, infuriating those who want the UK to set an example in moving away from fossil fuels.
On the energy transition side, the UK government has also faced criticism for allegedly moving too slowly with carbon capture and storage licensing and over its response to the new landscape of higher inflation and overseas subsidies for clean tech industries.
With announcement on the latest auction of the UK's renewables Contracts for Difference scheme expected next week
With the Labour opposition pledging to build a green economy, raise more revenues from windfall taxes and ban oil and gas licensing, energy is shaping up to be a key election topic in the UK.
The UK's offshore wind industry the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), a non-profit think tank stressed the urgency of the issues now facing Coutinho.
Jess Ralston, Energy Analyst at the ECIU said progress is faltering in the UK, including energy efficiency schemes which she described as flatlining due, in part, to delays to insulation standards in the private rented sector.
Ralston also criticised a lack of clarity on the phasing out of fossil fuel boilers, both on and off the gas grid and called on the government to act more decisively to help foster a heat pump industry and to more progress decisively toward ending a de facto ban on onshore wind.
Ralston stated :“Energy security has never been a higher priority, and insulating homes, moving away from gas boilers and building more British renewables all help make us less vulnerable to global oil and gas markets. It's a no brainer to focus on these net zero policies to ensure households are shielded from future market volatility, getting on with delivering them will surely be a priority."
(Updated to include reaction from the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit).
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