The overwhelming atmosphere at Conservative Party conference this week was one of anticipation. Throughout the fringe events and the hotel bars, even in the main hall, a sense that something big was about to happen seemed to pervade everything.
This wasn’t helped by Boris Johnson who, last weekend, set out his ‘red lines’ on Brexit and commented on domestic policy. Suddenly the first day of conference became all about potential leadership challenges and whether Johnson should be fired from the cabinet. All eyes were on Johnson on Tuesday, but he delivered a loyal and rousing speech comparing the people of Britain to lions.
Animal comparisons were also made at Greener UK’s reception, where Michael Gove commended the big beasts of the environmental sector. Or, as he called them, the “charismatic mega fauna”. It is possible that only those working in the nature sector would take this as a huge compliment. Gove was particularly pleased with the sector’s ability to campaign around Brexit asks, meaning he could address them with one speech rather than thirteen. It was, he pointed out, “a perfect example of energy conservation”.
It was a positive conference for Gove, delivering a funny, if content-low, speech and committing to look at policies around plastic bottle return schemes and longer sentences for those guilty of animal cruelty. He also made commitments around future environmental protections after Brexit.
Greener UK is asking the government to ensure there are provisions in the Withdrawal Bill to replace those EU agencies that monitor, enforce and implement our environmental laws. Gove said he completely understood the sector’s concerns and promised that answers would be forthcoming as the bill progressed. This was good to hear. The government’s promise to convert all existing EU environmental protections into law is welcome, but without the right functions to implement these laws fully, there is a risk these protections will become useless ‘zombie legislation’. Greener UK is ready to work with both Defra and DExEU to ensure the best framework possible to bring these protections to life.
Also announcing news was climate minister Claire Perry who seemed to whizz around the conference powered on nothing but good feeling. As well as celebrating the past achievements of the UK’s global climate leadership and the recent announcement of a 50 per cent reduction in the cost of offshore wind, she promised that the clean growth strategy would be out within a matter of weeks. She also said it would be “robust” and “truly cross-departmental”. While it is excellent news, being more than a year overdue it has a lot to deliver on. We’ll be looking closely to see that its conversion from a plan to a strategy doesn’t mean a lack of tangible action to support UK decarbonisation in the short to medium term. As with the Withdrawal Bill’s significant governance gap, the answers are still to be seen.
Elsewhere in the conference, trends on the Brexit narrative continued to emerge. The party is split between those wanting further answers on Brexit and those believing it will be a success no matter what. And, for the former, answers were not forthcoming. The continued mantra of “no deal is better than a bad deal” was worrying. It didn’t go down well at the fringe event of investors I attended, and nor will it be good news for the environment.
The anticipation that permeated the conference found its climax in the PM’s calamitous speech yesterday (one saving grace what that she used it to laud the UK’s role as a climate leader, something she has not always done in the past). However, anticipation about the UK’s future relationship with the EU seems like it will continue for the foreseeable future.
[Image: Manchester by Zuzanna Neziri from Flickr Creative Commons]