In one of my previous lives, I worked for some years as a project manager on IT projects. I remember one wise boss saying that “all IT projects run 30% over budget, even when this has been allowed for in the initial estimate”. I can remember more than one occasion on which every individual sitting around the table discussing a project knew full well that his or her bit of the project was running late, yet all faithfully reported being on target. It was all about who would blink first and take the blame for being late; once one person had blinked, the others could safely reschedule their work in the hope that the new revised timetable might allow them to recover the situation.
I found myself wondering whether something similar happened last week as the decision about progressing Hinkley C grew ever closer. I imagine the civil servants briefing the new PM and her team that they didn’t need to worry about the project, or the Chinese involvement, because the French board of EDF would never agree to proceed. Sir Humphrey probably said something like, “It will all be fine, Minister. Accept the invitation to the little party to sign contracts, but it will never happen. The French will let you off the hook”. Once the French had conveniently sunk the scheme, the UK Government would have someone else to blame.
But the French failed to blink, despite the obvious danger that they might end up sinking the whole company. Perhaps they’d been similarly briefed not to worry, because the UK Government didn’t really want to proceed either, so they’d never be called on to stump up.
I can imagine the subsequent panic in some Whitehall bunker when the news came through that EDF had decided to press ahead, placing the onus fairly and squarely back on London. Ministers were urgently advised not to attend ceremonies or sign anything. They rapidly found subsequent engagements.
The sensible thing at this stage would be for those concerned to recognise that Hinkley C was always a bad idea and, with as little recrimination as they can get away with, quietly walk away, and adopt a different policy. After all, we have a new government (even if we didn’t vote for one), and they can easily blame the previous government for getting us into the hole.It would be nice to believe that that can and will happen, but I’m not counting on it just yet. Another lesson from the past is that when so much time and effort has been sunk into a project there’s always a reluctance to simply accept it as a sunk cost, cancel the project, and move on. Deciding to stop throwing good money after bad requires a level of bravery which I’m not sure that the government is yet ready to display.