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What’s wrong with the right? Net zero and the future of the Conservative Party

There should be no need to rehearse the connections between Conservatism and environmentalism. Those not interested in the concept of stewardship, or why the words ‘conservative’ and ‘conservationist’ share their first two syllables, or the achievements of post-war Conservative governments (the Green Belt, the Clean Air Act, the Wildlife and Countryside Act, Mrs Thatcher’s climate speeches etc), those uninterested in history or philosophy, can skip to the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto.

Net zero backlash is on the rise         
That manifesto, and the government’s commitment to net zero and nature restoration, are now being opposed by an increasingly vocal group of MPs and commentators. How seriously should we take these guys (they are mostly guys)? 

In the Mail, Andrew Neil tilts at “ludicrous and expensive elements of the net zero strategy” and welcomes growing backbench concern about its “unquantifiable but clearly massive cost”. He says that “government will become ever more intrusive as it mandates everything from what sort of cars we drive to how we heat our homes and even cook our food”. And then that the PM should axe the “bewildering array of green taxes and regulations”, but asks “would his very eco-conscious wife let him?”

Craig Mackinlay MP, chair of the Conservative backbench Net Zero Scrutiny Group, hits out, in The Telegraph, at the “huge cost” of net zero and its “disastrous implications for the cost of living”. He acknowledges that global gas prices are driving up bills but suggests that the solution is to frack and open up North Sea reserves. Renewable energy subsidies, he says, “add an extra 25 per cent onto household electricity bills”, a much quoted figure. In fact, green levies contribute eight per cent to the cost of bills.  

The Telegraph (again) reports that “Senior Cabinet ministers believe there should be a rethink of the Government’s net zero plans as the country faces the biggest cost of living crisis in a generation”. Ministers are reported to believe “that the pace of the planned switch to renewable energy is too fast” and costly. Britain “should use more of its own gas in the short-term.” Another article says that cabinet members have pushed back “against ‘insane’ demands to go further on net zero”. 

And so on, a steady drumbeat of opposition to net zero, with The Sun now getting in on the act.

Ministers should speak up about the positives of climate action   
With the exception of Alok Sharma, ministers have largely stayed silent on climate since COP26. But they need to start making the case. They need to set out the attractions, as well as the necessity of a zero carbon, nature rich future. This battle will not be won by facts alone. Everyone remembers how slogans and nativism won Brexit, against the opposition of most experts. Nevertheless, it is worth debunking sceptics’ arguments.

Getting his retaliation in early, Chris Stark, chief executive of the Climate Change Committee, argues that the cost of net zero is not “huge”. At worst, it might mean a “four month delay to growth over 30 years”. Many others, from the Stern Review to the Office for Budget Responsibility have found that not acting on climate change will be much more expensive than doing so.

James Murray points out that the UK is not going unusually fast on net zero: the EU, US and many other countries have the same target as we do. Global economic trends and the desire to level up the regions both support action on net zero.

Middle England, not net zero, saw off fracking: no one wants it. As for UK shale gas reducing bills, according to former government advisers, Guy Newey and Josh Buckland, those advocating “simple, short-term solutions are in cloud cuckoo land… The idea that a fivefold increase in European gas prices… could be turned around quickly by a couple of wells in Lancashire is fanciful.”

Nor does the UK stigmatise oil and gas: it has one of the most generous tax regimes in the world, much loved by BP and Shell shareholders and their champagne merchants. Uplift’s Tessa Khan points out that, while the Norwegian government receives $21 per barrel of oil, the UK government takes $2. Some oil and gas companies will pay “negative tax” over the course of their operation. They’re having a laugh.

Cut the “green crap”? Carbon Brief calculates that energy bills are almost £2.5 billion higher than they would have been if climate policies had not been scrapped over the past decade. (Carbon Brief’s Simon Evans is a one person rebuttal unit, but he has his work cut out.)

Go slow on renewables? Sam Hall of the Conservative Environment Network points out that they are “the cheapest form of new electricity generation. Slowing their rollout would make us more reliant on expensive gas, push up bills, and jeopardise the tens of thousands of new green jobs key to levelling up.” 

Leave it to the market? Emma Pinchbeck, chief executive of Energy UK, the trade association for the energy industry, wonders who the opponents of net zero are talking to. “We can only see economic advantages and consumer benefit from net zero.” The apparent failure to understand how markets work is one of the strangest aspects of the free market backlash against environmental policies (see here and here on gas). On food, opponents of the government’s farming reforms seem to think that, if we dig for victory and keep farming the uplands, prices will fall. Unfortunately, it is a little more complicated than that. 

I could go on. But is any of this really about policy? Political campaigns are often motivated by ego or a love of troublemaking, or they serve as proxies for some other cause. In this respect, if no other, today’s anti-environment MPs resemble Churchill in the ‘30s; not the celebrated crusader against appeasement, but the quixotic and wrong headed opponent of even modest changes to Britain’s rule in India.

This is a battle for the future of the Conservative party
Tory historian Robert Rhodes James records that Churchill “set out on his campaign with a depressing lack of practical knowledge of the complexities of the India question, fortified with romanticized recollections of the 1890s, and determined that Britain’s imperial sway in the Indian sub-continent must be firmly retained. He had no alternative proposals of any substance to offer. He was the advocate of the status quo.” Rhodes James concludes that “rarely can so much resource and ability have been squandered by a major political personality for a cause that was so sadly ill-favoured by the facts of the case and the pace of events”.

All this sounds familiar. But the small group of Conservative ultras should not be dismissed. They have zeal and a large chunk of the press on their side. And, while we argue about substance, they are really fighting a battle over the future of the Conservative Party and whether Brexit delivers what many of its supporters wanted: a small state, “low tax, low regulation” country that is safe for unbridled capitalism.

The Sunday Telegraph bemoans the government’s “drift towards green social-democracy” (it has passed me by). Its editor, Allister Heath, wants a purge of the government’s “neo-socialists, green fanatics and pro-woke crowd” (I have not met these people). In an eccentric column, he calls on the government to “push to extract more oil and gas, including by fracking…. That wail you hear”, he says, “is the cry of Toryland: among the true believers, the long-marchers, the Eurosceptics and the free-marketeers, there is sorrow, anger and despair. We have been vanquished, but we will be back.” You would need a heart of stone not to smile.

The government’s aspirations have been largely good        
When Brexit happened, many environmentalists feared a bonfire of environmental protections. There was much talk of ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ and the rise of US-style populism. Instead, we have got the promise of a “green Brexit”, net zero, public money for public goods, the Environment Act and much else. There are plenty of reasons to worry and plenty of policies going in the wrong direction. But the government’s aspirations have been largely good. It wants a forward looking country, able to compete in a rapidly decarbonising world. It has not surrendered, UKIP-style, to what Colin Crouch calls “politicized pessimistic nostalgia”.

Now under pressure from a small but well organised group of climate sceptics, and with the cost of living set to dominate politics for several years at least, which way will the government go? In Conservatism: the fight for a tradition (“a must read” according to Kwasi Kwarteng), Edmund Fawcett writes: “Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Thatcherism, the Conservative Party has had no clear viewpoint.” He writes of the hard right’s offer of exclusionary nativism, doctrinaire libertarianism, and perverse appeal to the popular will”. Though “visibly ill-sorted and at odds with each other”, these elements, he says, threaten liberal democracy.

They also threaten enlightened environmental policy and, by extension, our future. Fortunately, the commitment to net zero and restoring nature is shared by a significant caucus of Conservative MPs, and it is supported by councillors and activists across the country. These policies are also popular with the electorate, including in Red Wall seats, and business.

Concern for the environment goes beyond climate, witness the campaign on water pollution, or the impact of planning policy on the Chesham and Amersham by-election.  

So it would be a huge electoral risk for any Conservative leader to weaken environment policies ahead of the next election. It would also be economically and strategically foolish for the UK to backslide after effectively leading the way, from net zero to COP26. The net zero strategy is a long term market signal. It is bringing investment to areas across the UK that badly need it. Policy equivocation would cause this to dry up rapidly, fatally undermining the government’s flagship levelling up agenda.

I hope the government will hold firm, even if there is a change of leadership. But there is no room for complacency.

Written by

Executive director of Green Alliance (www.green-alliance.org.uk) and Chair of the Greener UK board (http://greeneruk.org/).

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