'Madrid won't switch off the lights' says city's defiant leader

Isabel Díaz Ayuso has refused to enforce new energy saving rules in Madrid - SUSANA VERA/Reuters
Isabel Díaz Ayuso has refused to enforce new energy saving rules in Madrid - SUSANA VERA/Reuters

On the sweltering streets of Madrid, shopkeepers and bar-owners are toasting the capital’s firebrand leader as she goes back into battle with Spain’s socialist government.

“Isabel is a 10 out of 10. She looks out for us Madrileños," said Marta Fernández, manager of the café-bar Dixie on Madrid's Plaza Santa Cruz.

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the Right-wing head of the capital’s regional government, earned cult status after she freed Madrid from lockdown before any other Spanish city last year.

Now “Saint Isabel” has refused to enforce new energy saving rules that mean businesses will be forced to turn off exterior lights at 10pm and impose temperature limits on air conditioning and heating in offices, bars and shops.

"Madrid will not be switching off," said Ms Diaz Ayuso just minutes after the announcement of the new rules which aim to reduce Spain’s use of Russian gas.

"Having to put the air conditioning up to 27 degrees is a disgrace; those people in the government live like lords and then make us do things that go against common sense," said Ms Fernandez.

"People don't like being treated like idiots and being told what to do. You can't paralyse a country every time there is some kind of crisis; now it's Ukraine and gas, but there will be another one after that."

Madrid leader becoming a cult figure

Susana, who runs a jeweller's in central Madrid, said, “I admire her. She fought so that we could keep working. I mean, what bright spark thinks up these rules? You cannot turn everything off in the centre of Madrid with the trade we have here; you can't treat all cities alike."

Ms Díaz Ayuso has managed to morph from a figure of ridicule to arguably the country's most powerful electoral asset in the space of three years by choosing, and winning, a series of bloody political battles.

The 43-year-old was once mocked for questioning a low emissions zone in Madrid by arguing that traffic jams were part of the capital's identity; now she is seen as someone with a canny knack for channelling popular sentiment.

Her anti-lockdown stance during the Covid pandemic changed her image from that of a gaffe-prone, underperforming leader of the conservative Popular Party (PP) in Madrid to a new star of the Right capable of winning an impressive 45 per cent of the vote in a snap election she called in 2021.

Lockdowns are "paternalistic" and inherently "Left-wing", she told The Telegraph last November in Madrid.

Three months later she forced the People’s Party (PP) to change leader after accusing the party leadership of spying and blackmailing her with corruption allegations.

After months of behind-the-scenes rivalry between Ms Díaz Ayuso and then-PP leader Pablo Casado, she went public with the spying accusation and within a week Mr Casado was forced to resign.

Now Ms Díaz Ayuso has started a new war.

"Before closing down, banning and switching off, why not have an adult conversation with citizens and other levels of government to ask for their cooperation on the basis of clear criteria?" she said of the new energy rules.

Pedro Sánchez, Spain's Socialist Prime Minister, accused the Madrid leader of being "selfish" and "lacking solidarity" in the face of "Putin's blackmail".

The government's plan is designed to help the country cut gas consumption by seven per cent under an EU energy-saving agreement to cut dependence on Russian gas and save energy in case Putin turns off the taps to Europe this winter.

Spain's government says the law will be applied across the country from next Tuesday, but it falls to regional authorities such as Ms Diaz Ayuso’s to enforce it.

Her number two, Enrique Ossorio, said Madrid has broken no rules and that it was considering appealing the law in the courts.

"If a shop window light is turned off for 10 seconds, this satisfies the law," Mr Ossorio said, seemingly inciting Madrid's shopkeepers to flout the rule.

Recent polling has shown the PP overtaking Mr Sánchez's Socialist Party under new national conservative leader Alberto Núñez Feijóo.

But Núñez Feijóo’s biggest problem may now be how to handle the volatile Ms Díaz Ayuso, who has been tipped to become Spain’s first female prime minister.

In July, Mr Núñez Feijóo said that "Spaniards had to be told the truth and an energy saving plan introduced" and mentioned rules restricting air conditioning, heating and lighting.

Since Ms Díaz Ayuso's attack on Prime Minister Sánchez's plan, Mr Núñez Feijóo has remained silent.

Pedro Mora, owner of Mayorpiel, a leatherware store on Madrid's busy Calle Mayor, plans to follow the government edicts despite Ms Diaz Ayuso’s opposition to them.

He is installing automatic doors in his shop, which is just a stone's throw from Ms Díaz Ayuso's office, to abide by rules insisting entrances are not left open.

"These rules might not be perfect but the law is there to be obeyed, " he said.

"[Díaz] Ayuso talks a lot about freedom and businesses but we 've had zero help from her regional government.”