Here was a prime minister who wasn’t going to be hamstrung by her predecessors but would play by her own rules. If the decision irritated Beijing and Paris, then so be it.
Nearly two months later, the deal is back on, with what Downing Street said were “beefed up” security safeguards. The French energy giant EDF and China General Nuclear Power Group (CGN), which are partnering on the project, were relieved.
Critics aren’t impressed.
For all the fretting, the cost to British consumers — up to £30 billion — remains the same. And China will play a central role in Britain’s nuclear industry, despite the concerns of May’s advisers about its involvement being a potential national security threat.
For a new prime minister facing her first real political test, Hinkley has raised more questions than it answers. At first, it seemed she was dismantling one of her predecessor David Cameron’s policies with bulldog spirit. After Thursday, many of her Conservative MPs will feel that in the end the dog didn’t bark.
“Yes, she can tell the world that everyone has to wait until she’s done her homework,” one of May’s former Cabinet colleagues, former Liberal Democrat deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said. “But she needs to be, in my view, careful. Being a prime minister requires an ability to be fleet of foot, which she certainly didn’t have when she was home secretary, and which she certainly hasn’t displayed on Hinkley.”
May had put tens of thousands of jobs and Britain’s diplomatic relationships with China and France at risk for a political stunt, the opposition Labour party said.
“The government created a commercial crisis,” Labour’s energy spokesman Barry Gardiner told parliament. “They sent shockwaves through the industry and unions alike. They risked a diplomatic dispute with one of our key future trading partners, and in the end all they’ve done is pretend to give themselves powers that they already possess.”
MPs in May’s own Conservative party mostly held their fire. The announcement came on the day parliamentarians left Westminster for the U.K.’s annual political party conference season, and few wanted to inflame tensions already exposed by May’s controversial new schools policy.
Zac Goldsmith, an outspoken advocate on environmental issues, was one Tory MP who couldn’t resist. Hinkley will, by the end of its life, “have generated the most expensive energy in the history of energy generation,” the former London mayoral candidate said.
According to sources close to EDF and CGN, the government did not even try to renegotiate the promised subsidy, despite the widespread criticism of the project’s cost. Had it done so, the French company was likely to have abandoned the project.
Using security concerns to make an impression
May’s delay gave some clues as to how she will operate at No. 10.
For one thing, national security will remain her top priority at Downing Street, as it was during her six years as home secretary. It also signaled May’s eagerness to rethink Cameron’s policy legacy. Cameron was too soft on China in the hope of winning better trade deals, May and her advisers believe.
Another lesson from May’s handling of Hinkley: Big decisions will be made by a small, close-knit group in Downing Street who keep to themselves. And the most important figure in that tiny circle is Nick Timothy, May’s co-chief of staff and “policy brain.”
A 36-year-old former adviser to May at the Home Office, Timothy has been outspoken about the potential threat of Chinese investment in critical infrastructure. In an article for the website Conservative Home last year, he warned the Chinese could “build weaknesses into computer systems which will allow them to shut down Britain’s energy production at will.”
It was “baffling that the British government has been so welcoming to Chinese state-owned companies in sensitive sectors,” he argued. No amount of trade should “justify allowing a hostile state easy access to the country’s critical national infrastructure.”
With the new measures, May’s government can now claim that national security will be front-of-mind whenever ownership of the nuclear plants changes. However, critics said it will make little practical difference.
The Chinese are still poised to play a central role in Britain’s nuclear sector. CGN said on Thursday it was pushing ahead with investments in three power stations, at Hinkley, Bradwell in Essex and Sizewell in Suffolk, as agreed during a state visit by President Xi Jinping last October.
The Bradwell project is considered even more important to China’s nuclear ambitions than Hinkley. CGN will seek design approval within months, a source close to the company said.
Government officials insisted the Hinkley delay was not unnecessary dithering.
“It was right that we took our time to look at all the component parts of this deal. That has been done,” a Downing Street spokesman said. “The new safeguards in place are materially different from those that existed already and represent a real beefing up of those measures.”
Author: Alex Spence and Charlie Cooper