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Claire Coutinho: 'People want us to play a part in climate change, but not at any cost'

Claire Coutinho (Photography by Tom Pilston)

10 min read

Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary Claire Coutinho talks to Sienna Rodgers about her journey from banking to politics – and why those who speculate about her potential as a future chancellor may ‘need pills’

To reach Claire Coutinho’s parliamentary office, we’re led up flights of stairs by an aide who says the lift does work but can be temperamental sometimes. As two advisers, a departmental photographer, The House snapper carrying equipment and I all walk in, the Secretary of State accurately observes that we are a little breathless, adding that her visitors often are. “It’s a power move,” she says.

Coutinho, 38, followed a familiar path into politics – private school then Oxford; investment bank then think tank – and, as the daughter of doctors from India, her background has often been compared to that of Rishi Sunak. 

“I ended up… having been on a six-figure salary, working for £25,000. But I never looked back”

“They came to the country with £200 because they wanted to make sure that their children had opportunities in life,” she says of her parents. “For lots of people in the country who have that path, being able to see people go far in politics is a testament to how tolerant and open Britain is.”

Asked about her journey into Parliament, she says: “I never planned to be in politics. My family weren’t really big on politics.” As a child, she preferred maths, and went on to study maths and philosophy at university. 

“But I’d always done a lot of work with charities, so you have a lot of direct contact with people, often who were struggling. After a few years in the City, I realised that that’s where my heart’s focus was. 

“I took something like a 75 per cent pay cut. I ended up at the Centre for Social Justice, having been on a six-figure salary, working for £25,000. But I never looked back and it was the best decision I ever made.”

Reflecting on her choice to leave American bank Merrill Lynch to work at Iain Duncan Smith’s think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, London-born Coutinho names the riots in 2011 as a revelatory moment.

“I ended up getting all the graduate bankers – who, as you can imagine, were slightly type-A high achievers – to help local students who were struggling with their CVs and with their applications for university. That was a bit of a moment for me, which made me think I wanted to do something slightly more frontline.”

Claire Coutinho (Photography by Tom Pilston)
Claire Coutinho (Photography by Tom Pilston)

A committed Brexiteer, Coutinho is a close ally of the Prime Minister and worked for him as a spad at the Treasury before replacing Brexit rebel Sam Gyimah to become the MP for East Surrey in 2019. She is the first of that most recent intake to join the Cabinet, and its youngest member. Understandably, the phrase “rising star” is almost always attached to her name.

Coutinho was invited from the back benches to become a minister in September 2022 by Liz Truss. For obvious reasons, that job in the Department for Work and Pensions was short-lived. When Sunak took the reins from Truss the following month, Coutinho moved to education, where she stayed until her promotion to Cabinet level in August last year.

The Secretary of State is regarded by colleagues as bright, serious, and potentially a significant politician of the future – unlikely to be a candidate in the next leadership race but perhaps a frontrunner in the one after that. One supportive Conservative MP did, however, note that rising stars can burn out fast and wonder to The House whether she had climbed the ranks too quickly.

Did she ever expect to become a Secretary of State so soon? “No, I never planned to be here. But I’m hugely privileged to be here,” Coutinho replies baldly.

And, when she sits around the Cabinet table, is she keenly aware of her status as the youngest and the only 2019er? “I’ve worked with lots of people in the party for many years. I think people would know me for being on top of the detail, interested in the economy, interested in families and protecting family finances. So, I use a lot of those old relationships. It’s a wonderful set of people to work with.”

“I think we need to start selling medicine in the tearoom to people who are affected by the disease… Do you need some pills?”

Sunak has handed his friend Coutinho an important and high-profile brief: heading the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero, known as Desnz. The politics are tricky. Labour wants to go further and faster, with more ambitious decarbonisation targets; she calls them unrealistic. Sceptical Tory backbenchers urge her to abandon net-zero altogether; she rejects this too. 

Meanwhile, recent government decisions to issue new oil and gas licences and to delay certain green schemes cause resentment among Conservatives who do want to prioritise the United Kingdom’s climate goals. Does Coutinho’s messaging on net-zero not lack clarity?

“We’re the first country of any major economy to have halved our emissions. That’s an amazing achievement, and we’ve done that whilst growing the economy,” she says. “We’ve avoided some of the riots and protests that we’ve seen abroad in continental Europe. That’s because our approach is a Conservative approach of being sensible and pragmatic.”

According to Lee Anderson, the MP for Ashfield, net-zero never comes up on the doorstep. “How many people in Ashfield lie awake at night worrying about whether we get to net-zero by 2050? It’s not many,” he told the Popular Conservatism conference earlier this year, before joining Reform UK.

How does she respond to this challenge from the populist right? “People want us to play a part in global climate change, but not at any cost,” Coutinho says. 

“We need to make sure that we’re being honest with the public about costs, and realistic about what the country needs when it comes to energy security and energy affordability. I’m not just the Secretary of State for Net Zero – I also have to look at all of those three things in the round.”

Coutinho’s key attack line against Labour is that its target for clean power by 2030 means it will have to pursue a “made-in-China transition”. And yet the government’s own decarbonisation target is just five years later, and Conservative ministers say 95 per cent of British electricity should be low carbon by 2030.

“Saying that you want to decarbonise the grid by 2030 is a target that no major economy has. It’s not even what the climate-change lobby are asking for,” Coutinho says. She adds that, to achieve Labour’s 2030 target, “you’ll need to import more and more of what you need from the current dominant player, which – whether that’s cables or critical minerals or batteries – is China. What I want to do is make sure that British businesses can benefit from the transition, which is why we need time.”

Pressed on whether it is realistic to cut out China altogether when 98 per cent of the United Kingdom’s solar panels come from there, and whether the more Tory approach might be to compete with China instead, Coutinho talks about “building resilience” and “working with allies” but sidesteps the questions.

Claire Coutinho (Photography by Tom Pilston)
Claire Coutinho (Photography by Tom Pilston)

Among the controversial delays in government schemes is the clean heat market mechanism, which would have fined boiler manufacturers for missing heat pump targets. Coutinho defends the year-long pause as “protecting consumers”, because manufacturers were imposing a so-called “boiler tax” in response to the threat of fines.

Why didn’t she scrap the policy altogether? Coutinho suggests she preferred to ask the Competition and Markets Authority to investigate. “At the moment there are four boiler companies, which make up about 90 per cent of the market. That doesn’t give me enormous confidence that [consumers] will always get a fair price, so I want to look at that very carefully.”

It caused tensions in her Desnz team, however, with energy ministers Graham Stuart and Lord Callanan reportedly threatening to quit over the scheme’s delay. The House was told that Coutinho and Stuart were having multiple policy rows; the week before our interview, he resigned.

“We always have robust conversations in government, as you expect, but my priority, as I said, is to make sure that I can protect consumers. Graham has been a brilliant minister, and I pay huge tribute to all the work that he’s done in government over the last eight years,” Coutinho says.

Did Stuart resign over the delay? “No, I can refer you to his letter. He wanted to spend a bit more time in his seat, he’d been working in government for eight years. But like I said, what a tremendous eight years.”

On the day we meet, the story of Tory – now independent – MP Mark Menzies being accused of misusing party funds, which he denies, dominates the headlines. With her reputation as a hard-working MP, how does Coutinho feel when news repeatedly emerges of colleagues allegedly behaving inappropriately or even criminally? Are she and other diligent MPs being let down by them?

Coutinho pauses. “Well, we’ve seen bad behaviours from all political parties. Of course, I think he’s denied these allegations, I think. But anyway. But of course, the thing that I would always stress to my constituents is the vast majority of MPs are working really hard. They care very deeply about their communities and the people that they represent.”

Is it just a few bad apples, then? “I think any institution will have individuals who behave badly. It’s important that we address those and make sure that we’re rooting it out.”

Pushed further on whether such cases are unfairly damaging the reputations of politicians, she insists: “It’s frustrating when you hear of bad behaviour. At the same time, almost all the MPs I know are people who are patriotic, who want to deliver for their country.”

We turn to the Prime Minister, who is also known for his dedication to the job, and with whom she has worked closely for years. “Yes, he’s hard-working. He’s thoroughly decent. I also think he’s brave as a politician. He’s willing to say things which others may not,” Coutinho says.

What sort of things? “I can think about him standing up over third lockdowns when he warned people about inflation. He’s entirely…” She stops to think. “He’s happy to make a difficult case if he thinks it’s the right thing for the country. And I respect that.”

And is she frustrated that the public isn’t seeing the same side of Sunak that she does? “We’ve had a few really difficult years as a country, and our job as politicians is not to get frustrated by the polls but to keep sharing our message about why we think the Conservative agenda is right for the country,” she replies evenly, going on to list their political achievements.

Coutinho is often seen in Westminster as a chancellor-in-waiting. Does that flatter or irritate her? “This is a Westminster disease! As soon as somebody gets one job, everybody starts speculating about what they can do next. I think we need to start selling medicine in the tearoom to people who are affected by the disease.”

Rachel Reeves does seem keen on the idea of being the first female chancellor – is that a source of pride that would appeal to her?

“Do you need some pills?” Coutinho asks in return.

The question hangs in the air for a moment before an effort to find safer ground. Do she and the Prime Minister talk about economics much? “I talk to the Prime Minister about many things. Mainly about energy security,” she states,  without addition.

Once the recording stops, Coutinho relaxes a little. If she were not in politics, she would probably be in the food industry, she tells The House on the way to our shooting location. Chatting about the time she co-founded a literary-themed supper club, she confesses to having once organised a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory event with such enthusiasm that she applied orange paint to herself for an Oompa Loompa costume.

Are there any photos? “No – and I wouldn’t give them to you.” 

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