The Government would happily have us all believe that Britain is poised to become a world leader in electric cars. But like so much of what has come out of No 10 under Boris Johnson it is a mirage.
Compared with America, China, and parts of Europe such as Germany, we are absolutely nowhere when it comes to electric cars – stuck on the sidelines of a race in which the main competitors threaten to disappear over the horizon because this country abandoned even the merest pretence of a coherent long-term industrial strategy long ago.
With the Government missing in action as the country stands on the precipice of a full-blown economic crisis in which real incomes are set to tumble by the largest amount on record, it is probably wishful thinking to believe that the situation is about to change any time soon.
Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are millions of miles away, in a parallel universe it seems, in which they played no part in the chaos of the last three years, but merely watched in horror like the rest of us.
Meanwhile, the great man himself is on holiday – again – just five weeks before he is due to leave office, presumably still muttering about “getting Brexit done” as everything threatens to tumble into the sea.
Still, the news that temperamental Tesla tycoon Elon Musk is planning to build as many as 12 more so-called “gigafactory” battery plants represents a golden opportunity for whoever assumes the leadership to jump-start Britain’s ambitions and become a serious player in the electric vehicle revolution by hitching a ride with the planet’s wealthiest individual.
Musk, it is fair to say, divides opinion with his maverick ways. He was forced to pay a £20m fine from stock market regulators for improper tweets. There are also concerns about its workplace culture with Tesla facing separate sexual harassment and racial discrimination lawsuits in California.
None of this should be overlooked in an effort to court its founder, but without a genuine concerted plan to create the infrastructure required to underpin the transition to an electrified transport industry, the country will continue to lag way behind the true global trailblazers.
A battery factory building programme is essential. China may have an unenviable reputation for trashing the planet in the single-minded pursuit of economic growth, but it has quickly achieved supremacy in the global battery arms race.
Continental Europe is on course to have 27 gigafactories by the end of the decade, a sixfold increase on forecasts made just three years ago. With planned annual capacity of nearly 800GWh, it will be enough to power 15m pure electric vehicles.
Number one spot goes to Germany, which has bent over backwards to ensure that Musk builds his first European plant south-east of Berlin. The state of Brandenburg allowed Tesla to fell 170 hectares of forest providing that the company replaced every single tree that was cut down with three new saplings. Giga-Berlin will be the world’s second largest lithium ion battery plant behind its counterpart in Austin, Texas.
Ministers should embark on their own charm offensive to ensure that Brexit Britain is next on Musk’s list. As things stand, our capabilities amount to just a single Chinese-owned plant producing batteries for the Nissan Leaf model, which is built next door.
It is a statistic that should embarrass this Government when Boris Johnson talks breezily about leading a “green industrial revolution” and building a 21st century, net zero economy.
Nissan has plans for a big expansion that will turn the Sunderland plant into one of Europe’s largest, and start-up Britishvolt has pledged to build another near Blyth in Northumberland, though it is yet to secure full funding. That is the extent of our capabilities.
Industry executives think eight more are needed to maintain current UK car production of 1.5m vehicles a year if all models become electric, while the Faraday Institution estimates that we need at least 10.
Whatever the true figure, a partnership with Musk is our best bet to catch up. If Britain is serious about electric cars, it needs him to invest here. Tax breaks and guarantees of smooth trade with the EU are vital. Red tape needs to be torn up.
He is a chaotic figure and comes with an elastic sense of propriety, but this is a once in many generation chance to participate in a genuine industrial revolution.
The car industry will have to undergo massive consolidation in the coming years as it struggles with the scale of structural change and Tesla is in pole position to emerge as one of the survivors. The UK should hold its nose and roll out the red carpet.