The champagne is firmly back on ice. The marquee is being disassembled. The viewing platform is being taken down.
When the EDF board eventually, and narrowly, committed to the building of Hinkley Point yesterday, they like everyone else couldn’t have envisaged the Government’s response. The two-line statement, released last night, came like a bolt from the blue. Officials weren’t heading to Somerset to sign and toast the deal. Instead, they were breaking out the magnifying glasses to examine the contract one more time.
To describe Hinkley Point as contentious is to marvel in understatement. Critics have questioned nearly every aspect of the deal. Is it too expensive, particularly given the guaranteed cost of electricity? Is it safe? Do overseas investment and management pose security threats to the UK?
These and other questions will now be pondered by the Government, pending a decision in the autumn. The decision to pause the contract signing is said to come from the ‘very top.’ Government sources have insisted that it’s entirely right a new Cabinet should want to consider the deal. But it seems curious that, as one of the major players in government over the past six years, Theresa May should wait until the eleventh hour to hit the pause button.
The entire saga is frankly a communications nightmare. The timing of the Government’s announcement is difficult to understand, given it was no secret the EDF board would vote on the contract yesterday. And doubtless today’s contract signing had been in the diary for months. The sheer brevity of the Government statement is also a head-scratcher, particularly given the importance placed on the project and the costs involved.
Granted, the Theresa May administration is in its infancy. And proceeding with a bad deal would be worse than the eleventh hour pause. But it’s difficult not to get the sense that by waiting until the last possible moment, the Government has opened a can of worms for itself. The two big questions now will be is the project going to proceed, and if not, what in the world will the alternative be?
These are the questions the Government will have to answer in no short order. And doing so will not involve a two line statement issued late in the day.