Hinkley Point
A road cuts through the site where EDF Energy's Hinkley Point C nuclear power station is due to be constructed in Bridgwater, southwest EnglandReuters

What blunder, do you think, deserves to be awarded first prize in the long, inglorious history of Great British Fiascos? The charge of the Light Brigade, perhaps? The way King John so carelessly lost all his treasure in the waters of the Wash? Or what about English football's tame surrender to Iceland in the Euro 16 championship?

Cringe-making, every one, I think you'll agree. But we ain't seen nothing yet. Today we're witnessing a folly so shambolic, so expensive, so eye-poppingly spectacular that it puts all others in the shade. It goes by the name of Hinkley Point, the proposed new nuclear power station in Somerset. And it's the misbegotten creation of our entire political establishment, with Labour, Lib-Dem and Tory MPs all complicit.

One of the few politicians who emerges with some credit from this unfolding disaster is our new Prime Minister Theresa May, who stunned everybody when immediately on entering Downing Street she refused to rubber-stamp the deal and instead ordered a review of the whole project. As we shall see, her reasons for delaying a decision were eminently sensible.

But what howls of anguish it has provoked. The French-owned energy company EDF, which will build Hinkley Point, is appalled. President Hollande's government makes no secret of its displeasure. And now China, which is providing billions to finance the project, is weighing in with threats of dire consequences for Britain if the deal doesn't go ahead.

In an extraordinary intervention on Tuesday, Chinese ambassador Liu Xiaoming warned publicly that relations between the two countries are at serious risk. Chinese companies, he declared, have in the last five years invested more in Britain than in Germany, France and Italy combined. "Mutual trust is the very foundation on which this is built." He added, with about as much subtlety as a Mafia boss putting the frighteners on. "Nice trade deals you've got here...Pity if anything happened to them..."

So there we have it. Britain must do as Beijing wants. Or else. Now Mrs May – and the rest of us - are caught in a dilemma. Do we submit to Chinese blackmail and therefore saddle ourselves with wildly expensive electricity (not to mention other problems) for decades ahead? Or do we pull the plug on Hinkley Point and risk losing much of Chinese trade and investment?

It's time to examine how we ever came to be in this mess. And for that we must go back to the last Labour Government and an Energy Secretary named Ed Miliband. Remember him?

It was Mr Miliband who in 2008 – with the enthusiastic support of the Tories and Lib-Dems - introduced the Climate Change Act, which committed Britain to a staggering 80% reduction in Carbon emissions by 2050, the most ambitious target set anywhere in the world. But though the intention was wholly admirable, the thinking behind the Act was hopelessly flawed.

Ministers began to panic. And that's why they walked, wide-eyed, gullible and pitifully unaware into the folly of Hinkley Point.

It's all very well to signal your ecological virtue by planning the end of all coal and gas-fired power stations. But how do you replace them? With wind-farms which don't work when it's too windy or too calm and which never, ever, operate at full capacity? Or with solar power which doesn't work when the sun isn't shining? Shamefully, both Labour and its successor Coalition government closed their eyes to the problem.

Then it was too late. In the absence of a coherent energy policy, with the closure of ageing power plants, few replacements being built, carbon reduction plans looking more and more unachievable and the prospect of the lights going out in the not too distant future, ministers began to panic. And that's why they walked, wide-eyed, gullible and pitifully unaware into the folly of Hinkley Point.

From their point of view, it seemed an ideal solution. Nuclear power would fill the gap. French technology would provide the expertise. Best of all, it enthused the then Energy Secretary Ed Davey of the Lib Dems, "For the first time, a nuclear power station in this country will not have been built with money from the British taxpayer. This is an excellent deal for Britain and British consumers".

Oh dear. Let's examine the details of Mr Davey's "excellent" deal.

To begin with the European Pressurised Reactors proposed for Hinkley Point by the French company EDF have a dismal reputation. Because of design and construction problems, two major projects involving such reactors – one in France, one in Finland – are running years behind schedule and are wildly over budget.

British consumers will end up paying for the world's most expensive electricity for decades.

Things aren't much better here in Britain. EDF has been planning to build at Hinkley Point ever since 2008, when it it took over British Energy, which ran all 15 of our existing nuclear plants. But plans to go ahead with another plant have been repeatedly delayed – this while our energy capacity grows ever more precarious.

And then there's the eye-watering expense of this scheme. Hinkley Point will cost at least £18billion and will probably end up costing much more. The sums are so huge that ministers could only persuade EDF to accept such a burden by allowing it to charge sky-high prices for the electricity it produces. British consumers will end up paying for the world's most expensive electricity for decades.

And for what? The plant won't be built for at least another eight years, even if everything goes to plan – a big "if", given the record so far. And if ever it eventually runs at full capacity, it would provide power only for six million homes – a pitiful return for such a huge and risky investment.

Theresa May has every right to re-examine this whole misconceived project. And given the reaction of the Chinese ambassador, wouldn't the rest of us be equally right to re-examine the wisdom of sucking up to the bullies of Beijing?


Michael Toner is former leader writer at the Daily Mail and co-author of a series of Bluffers' Guides on Europe.