ANDREW NEIL: We have stepped nearer to being dominated by unelected judges

I’m beginning to wonder if it really matters who we vote for on July 4 when we are now a country in which power has been steadily seeping from elected politicians to ­unelected judges.

Take energy policy, a pivotal issue at a time of high fuel prices and fears about security of supply.

The Tories want to grant lots more licences to drill for oil and gas in the North Sea, to increase supply (to steady prices) and make us less dependent on unreliable foreign imports.

Eco protesters celebrate ouside the Supreme Court after it ruled that Surrey County Council had been wrong to allow the expansion of a tiny oilfield known as the Gatwick Gusher

Eco protesters celebrate ouside the Supreme Court after it ruled that Surrey County Council had been wrong to allow the expansion of a tiny oilfield known as the Gatwick Gusher

Labour would cease any further development in the North Sea after existing licences expire, preferring to give greater priority to reducing our carbon emissions and getting to net zero sooner rather than later.

So a clear choice for us to make. Exactly how a democracy should work. Except that judges have already taken the decision for us.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that Surrey County Council had been wrong to allow the expansion of a tiny oilfield known as the Gatwick Gusher (for its proximity to the airport) because it had only taken into account the emissions generated by developing the field, not those emitted when the oil was eventually burnt.

Thus, with one ruling, has the highest court in the land brought the further development of our oil and gas reserves to a grinding halt.

It has done more for Just Stop Oil’s ­campaign than any amount of Stonehenge-style performative attacks could ever hope to achieve.

The Surrey field is small in the grand scheme of things but the Supreme Court ruling will now be applied to far ­bigger ventures just getting off the ground, such as the massive ­­Rosebank oil field 80 miles west of the Shetlands and the Whitehaven coal mine in Cumbria.

The massed ranks of climate activists are already being mustered. Armed with their high-powered (and highly paid) lawyers and the Supreme Court ruling, they will challenge every nascent fossil fuel development in the land.

And there is every chance they will bring them to a grinding halt, just as they have the Gatwick Gusher.

It is yet another significant step on the road from democracy to kritocracy (rule by judges).

We are moving from rule by elected politicians —who consult experts in and out of government before rolling out the policies on which they were voted in — to rule by unelected judges who know nothing of the matters on which they opine but are still able to impose their own narrow but highly consequential interpretation of the law.

None of the three Supreme Court judges who took Thursday’s decision would seem to have any expertise in energy policy or climate change.

One of them, Lord Leggat, is big on diversity and inclusion, as those — like him —educated at Eton, Cambridge and Harvard often think they should be seen to be. But not energy policy.

Another, Lady Rose, a product of Oxford and Cambridge, doesn’t seem to have any private sector experience, never mind energy sector expertise, since she’s spent most of her working life as a career legal officer in government.

The third, Lord Kitchin, also Cambridge, is a specialist in intellectual property. Not oil and gas.

The activists determined to stop the Surrey development had already lost in the High Court and the Court of Appeal. But thanks to these three judges from the same university, they won a narrow victory (three to two) in the highest court.

The local council and the oil company have run out of legal road. That sound you hear is the noise of oil and gas firms running for the door. Why hang around in a country that doesn’t want you?

A country in which an incoming Labour government was going to freeze further licences anyway; in which the governing SNP in Scotland is no friend either; and in which supposedly temporary windfall taxes, taking the corporate tax rate to a penal 75 per cent, look like becoming permanent.

A country in which every planning application takes for ever (even the minor development in Surrey spent five years in the courts); in which you face the relentless hostility of activists and polite society treats you as a pariah (while, of course, avidly ­consuming your products).

The ruling on the Gatwick Gusher is yet another significant step on the road from democracy to kritocracy (rule by judges)

The ruling on the Gatwick Gusher is yet another significant step on the road from democracy to kritocracy (rule by judges)

And in which you never know when you, your family or your offices will be sprayed in orange paint by eco-zealots and loons.

There are far friendlier climes that want your investment — and they’re probably more profitable, too. So don’t for a second think the departure of the oil and gas industry from our shores is any kind of victory for net zero.

They will just move to exploit fossil fuels in other territories, often with less ­rigorous environmental standards than our own, while our world-class oil and gas sector, which generates £30 billion in revenues, £9 billion in tax and 220,000 direct and indirect well-paid jobs, enters terminal decline.

Not for much longer will Aberdeen be the oil capital of Europe. It risks the same fate as Glasgow, whose once proud boast to be the shipbuilding capital of the world is now but a distant memory.

Lord Leggat opined that oil from the Surrey field would ‘inevitably’ be ‘burned’ and the planning application had failed to account for that in terms of the carbon emissions generated.

Exactly how you would ­calculate that he did not say. After all, not all oil is burned. It’s used for petrochemicals (the clue is in the name, your lordship) and in a variety of products from plastics to tyres to bitumin to pharmaceuticals. So the figure he wants is well nigh impossible to calculate.

But the most ludicrous aspect of the judgment — described by one energy expert as ‘utter lunacy’ — is the implication that banning new licences in the UK will reduce our consumption of fossil fuels.

If that were the case, there would be some logic to the ruling. But it’s not. We are destined, on all reputable forecasts, to need oil, gas and even some coal for the foreseeable future.

But now we’ll import even more of it, at even greater cost in terms of price and emissions. The UK Supreme Court will be the toast of Qatar and Saudi Arabia this weekend. No doubt the Kremlin is smiling too, as it also looks at ways of sneaking its oil to us, perhaps via India.

Our loss is the dictators’ gain. And not just the ­dictators. A friend from Texas thanked me yesterday for the Supreme Court ruling, saying his state looked forward to sending us even more natural gas.

The Tories have only themselves to blame. They have long pandered to the net zero cause, hoping to scoop up some of the ‘green’ vote (naturally, they’ve failed).

This culminated, during the last, miserable days of Theresa May’s premiership, in the House of Commons nodding through, without proper debate or scrutiny, a legally binding target for Britain to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

May regarded this as her lasting legacy. It’s turned out to be more of a time-bomb because it’s the legally binding aspect of the target which has given the Supreme Court such a grip on energy policy.

The net zero target only covers emissions generated within our borders. So the fact we will have to import more oil and

gas as a result of its ruling, even though that means higher ­emissions, doesn’t concern the Court. It has no legal remit over imported energy.

Nor can it have anything to say about energy security since the Government hasn’t set a legally binding target for that.

Thus, almost by accident, has net zero become the be-all and end-all of judge-determined energy policy, whose impact will be to make us all poorer.

Labour, of course, is cockahoop. It’s been a cheerleader for the growth in judicial activism. It has now resulted in the highest court effectively endorsing a Labour policy. What’s not to like?

Keir Starmer has long been an ally of the north London legal establishment — they’re his neighbours, it’s his milieu, his world, he’s an integral part of it — which has prospered with the growth in judicial activism.

Second homes have been purchased in Tuscany from its proceeds, then expensive extensions, then even bigger ­Tuscan villas.

Starmer and his legal mates have cheered on every attempt by largely Left-wing lawyers, aided by activist judges, to frustrate the will of the Commons by thwarting the Government’s efforts to deport illegal migrants and to ­stymie the Rwanda initiative, which is now dead in the water.

They were ecstatic when the Supreme Court, in a case brought by the Remainer activist Gina Miller, ruled in 2019 that then Prime Minister Boris Johnson had acted unlawfully by proroguing Parliament.

Tony Blair’s incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law via our very own Human Rights Act has been a dripping roast for the legal profession and they’ve filled their bellies on it ever since.

Blair (another lawyer) also left behind the Equality Act, with its concept of ‘protected characteristics’, which has given various minorities huge power to enhance their status, again with highly remunerated lawyers in tow.

Starmer wants to extend it. Some of his neighbours will no doubt think it’s time to add a Swiss ­chalet to that Tuscan villa.

The only former Supreme Court judge to criticise this openly is Lord Sumption, who’s described how the ‘expanding empire of the law’ has usurped what should be the preserve of elected officials and has resulted in the courts straying ‘into the realms of legislative and ministerial policy’.

But, though Labour has been central to the creation of this sad state of affairs, it could quickly become the biggest roadblock to progress in power.

The Labour leader says economic growth will be the ‘core mission’ of his government.

He will kick-start a stagnant economy with a bonfire of planning rules to unleash a housing boom and an infrastructure investment bonanza.

Since he denies any major tax rises are up his sleeve, he needs growth to generate the extra tax revenues he will need to meet a myriad of Labour demands for more public spending. But it raises the delicious prospect of Starmer being forced to turn on his own legal tribe.

No major planning application can proceed these days without a battery of lawyers pleading the case of anyone with a grievance against a particular development, often presided over by activist judges.

Sometimes the very prospect of such a tortuous and expensive legal process can kill off a project (like the third runway at Heathrow). Or it can delay it and add hugely to the cost (HS2). Or it can simply bog it down in interminable litigation and court hearings.

The planning document for the proposed Lower Thames Crossing is almost 360,000

pages long, much of it covering EU directives which are still extant in post-Brexit ­Britain and which Labour was most enthusiastic about incorporating into British law.

Those of you who lament why we are so slow and bad at major infrastructure investments need only look at the obsession of today’s political class with regulation and the legal enthusiasm for enforcing it while growing rich in the process. Rigor mortis now grips our planning system.

All of which should give Starmer pause for thought as he savours the Supreme Court’s Surrey ruling. For he will soon be up against precisely the same forces which have halted the Gatwick Gusher in its tracks.

The very legal pressures and judicial processes which he and his party have encouraged could soon be standing in his way, defiant and arrogant.

Starmer, adopting his hard guy stance, says he’s not afraid of making enemies. Whether he’s up for making enemies of everybody in his own professional backyard, we shall see.

I suppose he’s not exactly a stranger to major U-turns.

The problem with a kritocracy is that the people don’t get to appoint the judges making the laws. They are accountable to nobody and there’s almost no way of getting rid of them.

If Labour messes up North Sea oil and gas, we can take revenge at the next election. There’s nothing we can do about the Supreme Court, however madcap its decisions.

Rule by lawyers is very different from the rule of law. Starmer, a lawyer-turned-politician, is about to find that out the hard way.

If he really does try to wrestle back power from the courts he will soon discover that even a landslide majority is no guarantee of success.