It is said that politicians campaign in poetry but govern in prose. When it comes to the environment, the Conservative leadership contest has offered up little more than sub-McGonagall doggerel. It is natural to worry about the prose to come.
In the early days of the campaign, the candidates queued up to advertise their indifference to the environment. Things got a little better after a spirited campaign, by Chris Skidmore, Alok Sharma, Zac Goldsmith and other green Conservatives, to put nature and net zero on the agenda. They were helped by 40 degree temperatures that made the issue hard to ignore. In the event, the top five candidates signed up to the CEN (Conservative Environment Network) environment pledge.
Now we are down to Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Neither is exactly passionate about the environment. They want to frack and extract more north sea oil and gas; end farming ‘red tape’ and focus on food production; axe the green levies (Truss); ban onshore wind (Sunak); introduce a sunset clause so all EU retained law lapses by the end of 2023 (Truss) or before the next election (Sunak); and so on.
But they have also quietly started to make some welcome commitments. Some on the Tory right are keen to make the environment a ‘wedge issue’, a clear point of division between the Conservatives and parties to the left. But, as Sam Hall of CEN says, the fact that climate issues are not a major point of contention in the leadership campaign suggests there is “no great desire to break from Boris Johnson’s policies”.
Support for the environment equals votes
Members of political parties are unrepresentative of voters. When the new prime minister turns their attention to the wider electorate, she or he should start to become more serious about the environment. The centre right think tank, Onward, calculates that abandoning net zero could cost the Conservatives 1.3 million votes: backsliding on green commitments would be electorally foolish.
There are other causes for modest hope. Senior figures behind both candidates get the severity of the environmental crisis and are committed to action. Their influence must surely increase when the new administration has to face up to two big questions that have been strangely neglected in recent weeks: what to do about the cost of living crisis, particularly soaring energy costs, and how to strengthen the UK economy and boost productivity.
The answers in both cases require intensifying green policies: more renewable energy; more energy efficient buildings; an industrial strategy that is serious about resource efficiency and skills for a green economy. If the Conservative Party wants to win elections, rather than engaging in the sort of weird ideological battles that have made Labour unelectable for large parts of its history, it will have to recognise that business is committed to net zero and voters are desperate for policies to lower their bills.
They may pay lip service but dodge the difficult decisions
So I do not despair, however dispiriting this leadership campaign has been. But it is clearer than ever that green advocates have their work cut out to build deep support for action to tackle climate change and nature’s decline. And it is deep support that is needed because the transition will not be easy. On both net zero and nature, there is a danger that politicians will sign up to targets and outcomes, but then dodge the hard work and difficult decisions needed to meet them.
Brexit revealed that we all occupy our political and cultural bubbles. My bubble regards climate and ecological breakdown as a threat to civilisation that can only be averted by unprecedented national and global efforts. Judging from this contest, most Conservative MPs and members occupy a bubble where the environment is seen as just one issue among many, worthy of less attention than ‘the war on woke’, let alone the beauty of tax cuts.
Conservative MPs signed up to net zero with a degree of enthusiasm and embraced farming reform as one of the most tangible benefits of Brexit. But their commitment is proving to be only skin deep. Certainly, the leadership contenders have shown a fundamental lack of seriousness about the environmental challenge, coupled with wilful ignorance of the issues.
And though the spotlight has been on the Conservatives, I wonder just how deep is the commitment of opposition MPs to action on climate and (still more) nature? Have they really thought about the choices it entails? The reality is that they are unlikely to be asked by journalists, who in recent weeks have either neglected the environmental challenge or trivialised it.
Two messages are failing to land
We now desperately need to win political support for action on climate and nature. The big environmental NGOs run brilliant campaigns on a range of issues, but collectively we punch well below our weight. We have two narratives we are failing to land.
The first seems pretty obvious: we face climate and ecological breakdown and must do something about it. But the fact is that, for Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, and all the former Conservative leadership contenders, this is a strangely low priority.
I am fascinated by the story that Boris Johnson’s conversion to climate evangelism arose from a briefing on the science from Sir Patrick Vallance. It is good that he got the message, but amazing that he had remained in ignorance in his years as an MP, mayor of London and foreign secretary. And how amazing that Liz Truss as foreign secretary and Rishi Sunak as chancellor do not appear to have had a similar briefing.
There is clearly a job to be done to inform MPs better about why they should care. The trouble is, they have to want to learn. Green Alliance runs a Climate Leadership Programme that gives MPs a chance to discuss the issues with experts. We would love to involve more MPs in this.
The second narrative we have to land is that action on climate and nature is not separate from the serious work of everyday politics: it is a central means of strengthening the economy, tackling the cost of living, levelling up (remember that?), boosting trade, raising the UK’s global reputation, improving health (through cleaner air, access to nature and better diets), and so on. It is not something we can get round to when more immediately important things have been done: it is the way to get warmer homes, better jobs etc.
Green Alliance’s strategy, published a year ago, optimistically suggested that our vision of “a green and prosperous UK” was now owned by all the main parties, and that the task was to show how to achieve it through detailed policy proposals. The need for detailed policy remains. But the Conservative leadership contest has shown the urgent need to strengthen political support for action on the environment.