After a leadership contest that seems to have lasted forever, and not in a good way, we will soon learn who is to be our new prime minister. Almost everyone assumes it will be Liz Truss. She will receive no end of policy advice, including from Green Alliance, but what about the tenor of her leadership? How should she go about forming her government?
The dispiriting leadership contest has been directed at a small, unusually right-wing selectorate and a handful of even more extreme Conservative-supporting newspapers. The good news is that the refreshed government will have to appeal to the whole country, to voters who are alarmed by rising bills and crumbling services, and strongly supportive of action on the environment.
Here are four suggestions for the new prime minister.
Be more Boris (up to a certain point)
It may be a bit early to feel nostalgic for Boris Johnson’s premiership, but his government had significant environmental achievements, many of which would not have happened without his leadership. In particular, we should thank him (and Zac Goldsmith and Alok Sharma) for the unprecedented focus on the natural world at COP26.
I do not want to paint Boris Johnson as some kind of saint or single-minded green crusader. That would be a tough job. His government often disappointed (governments always do). But he showed an immeasurably greater understanding of the interrelationship between planetary, societal and economic health than either of the two candidates to replace him have so far.
Climate and nature action did not become the national mission they need to be, but significant progress was made. This summer of drought, floods and sewage should have shown everyone that now is the time for more action on the environment, not less.
Defra and the broad church
I was planning to make a case here for including Michael Gove in the new government. He has been the outstanding minister of the last 12 years; as environment secretary, he restored Defra’s morale and showed that he understood the severity of the climate crisis.
Defra is a much more important department than it was before Brexit, when so much relevant policy was decided in Brussels. It has a big agenda, but most current or recent Defra – George Eustice, Victoria Prentis, Rebecca Pow and the recently appointed Steve Double – are backing Rishi Sunak. Of course, a totally new government would have to fill the department with inexperienced ministers. But there is no need to make a clean sweep now. The refreshed government will be chosen largely from 357 Conservative MPs. Exclude those who are unavailable or obviously mad or bad and it is a pretty small pool.
The experience and ability of the new Defra team will be one indication of whether the new prime minister is serious about the environment. So will the make-up of No 10. Special advisers or ministers with the ear of the prime minister have played an important part in driving green policy. If No 10 has no expertise on net zero and nature, it will indicate that the government no longer aspires to have “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth”.
It will also make it harder for green groups to play the constructive role we want to. NGOs can be annoying, but we can also be helpful. In a 2016 interview with the Institute for Government, Ed Balls reflected on the importance for ministers of “advocates… on the outside… invested in what we were trying to do”. He recalls saying to the green NGOs, “’Look, it’s fine to beat us up. But can you beat us up in a way which allows you to advance your agenda, rather than kill us off?’”
Where there is a broadly common agenda, the relationship between NGOs and No 10 can be fruitful. Witness David Cameron’s climate pledge; Theresa May’s 25 Year Environment Plan and commitment to net zero; or Boris Johnson’s crucial support for a 2030 phaseout for new petrol and diesel cars and a 2030 species abundance target.
Do the government and NGOs still have a shared agenda on climate and nature? And will there be anyone in No 10 to drive the agenda forward and work (when appropriate) with green groups? We will soon know.
Whether the government is of left or right, progress in any society depends on respect for the rule of law, open debate and tolerance of dissent. That includes environmental progress. The Johnson government clamped down on peaceful protest, undermined the BBC and waged a divisive war on woke (whatever that is). The tenor of the leadership debate does not fill me with confidence, but Britain is better as a tolerant, liberal society, and a tolerant, liberal society is necessary if we are to win “a green and prosperous UK for all”.
In 2010, the Conservatives stood explicitly as a progressive party, with the environment a central part of the agenda (“a society that is greener, where we pass on a planet that is environmentally sustainable, clean and beautiful to future generations”). I hope we can return to a political culture with more respect and few dividing lines.