Conservative Party Conference: Boris Johnson holds the key to environmental progress

Green Alliance descended on Manchester for the Conservative Party Conference, along with the rest of Westminster, not really knowing what to expect. For many, including Conservatives first elected in 2019, this was their first in-person party event of this parliament. It was a noticeably younger crowd, perhaps a result of traditional members staying at home due to Covid-19, or a newer younger membership?

Handshaking was rife, the bars were full and people seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves. But what of the politics? What did this conference achieve?

The first noticeable thing was the sheer volume of events on the environment in the schedule. About a third of events across the main hall and the fringe had an environmental angle. Several people remarked how this wouldn’t have been the case a few years ago. Whilst unsurprisingly the Conservative Environment Network had a packed agenda, running back to back events throughout conference, there were also environment focused events by less likely candidates, such as Conservative Home, The Spectator, the Centre for Policy Studies and even the Tax Payers Alliance Ben Houchen was busy building his popularity and power base ahead of a likely move from Teesside to Westminster, making some of the most fluent and cogent arguments for net zero.

Several secretaries of state made their first speeches leading new departments. Perhaps most hotly anticipated was Michael Gove’s. But his was short and directed at the Labour Party and the SNP, rather than on levelling up. It was a political, not a policy speech. Many remarked that he likes to read everything across the policy area first before deciding what to do, so it helps that he’s already been environment secretary. Encouragingly, he mentioned “safer” and “greener” homes in the same breath. A nod to the future we hope.

Rishi’s remarkable omission
The chancellor’s speech, by contrast, made no mention of green issues. It’s easy to criticise speeches but this really was a remarkable omission ahead of the comprehensive spending review, net zero strategy and COP26. Worryingly, it points to the possibility of a badly designed (and received) Treasury net zero review very soon. His focus was reassuring the right of the party that he’s a fiscal Conservative following the recent National Insurance hike. One can understand the political strategy, but the climate crisis is more pressing than any future leadership contest.

Rishi Sunak’s conservatism on green issues was overshadowed by a much more positive announcement which came from Conservative HQ, that gas was being kicked off the grid by 2035. It’s something Green Alliance has been pushing for and demonstrates leadership from Number 10 and BEIS on reducing emissions. That axis, along with support from Defra in particular, remains strong. How energetic and effective that axis will be after COP26 next month remains to be seen.

Some Conservatives still aren’t that keen on green
For the start of the conference COP26 President-designate Alok Sharma, was in Rome for the important pre-COP26 negotiations. But he arrived for the last few days, including to speak at our joint event with WWF on ‘Keeping 1.5 alive’. His commitment and determination were clear, in his remarks that, for him, “every day is a working day”. However, his conversation with Stanley Johnson in the main hall was badly attended, a noteable contrast to events with his cabinet colleagues like Priti Patel and other darlings of the right. It’s a reminder, perhaps, that some in the Tory party aren’t all that keen on green. What ministers should remember, though, is that the country is.

The prime minister, more than most, is aware of the tension between his party and the country. After all, he was made PM by the party and confirmed by the country. Many believe he’s an instinctively liberal politician and, after winning the grassroots in 2019, ‘getting Brexit done’ and sacking Dominic Cummings, he will want to govern with his own philosophy. One backbench Conservative I spoke to suggested it was his kids who were driving his environmental politics, not his wife, or even his environmentalist father. The truth is it’s probably all the above, but you have to win power to govern (and keep it too). The fact the announcement on 2035 gas phase out was watered down to a mention of not importing foreign hydrocarbons in his speech, was a recognition of his audience, but also in keeping with what was a policy light, joke heavy 45 minutes.

Pressure from Labour is essential
The Labour conference, and notably Rachel Reeves’ speech, was far more ambitious on green spending. Serious pressure from Labour is essential. But the reality is they’re not in government. Spending pledges in opposition are relatively easy. Driving through ambitious policies on the environment in a party more sceptical than the public at large, is a trickier task.

As the haze recedes from a busy few days, it’s worth reflecting that over a third of this conference’s events were on green issues this year and the government made a big announcement on ending the use of gas for electricity generation. The power sector will be fully low carbon by 2035. It’s easy to get caught up on what Rishi says, but it’s the PM who holds the keys to Downing Street, and the key to environmental progress too.

[Image courtesy of Number 10 gov flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/number10gov/51534985346/]

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