Osborne should beware of bolstering the Tories' anti-green wing

Voters don't see climate change as a priority, but caring about it was an emblem of Tory moderation.

I recently had a conversation with someone who has conducted a lot of political focus groups. The conversation turned to climate change and environmental policy. The context was the Conservative party’s conspicuous abandonment of green messages. Presumably, I said, this is animated to some degree by the fact that voters aren’t that interested in the subject. The economic crisis has bumped climate change lower down the priority list of public concerns – even lower than it was before. I was surprised by the answer. “It’s more than that. It’s actually a negative,” I was told. Apparently, green policies are seen by many swing voters as an expensive luxury and – worse still – a pious elite preoccupation; one of the ways that a wealthy few sneer at those without money to spare. “Have you seen how much apples cost at the farmers’ market compared to Tesco?” is a standard response.

Making people buy groceries at farmers' markets is not, of course, any party’s idea of a serious policy to tackle climate change. The point is that there is, in many people’s minds, a whole apparatus of environmentalism that is bundled up with the “green lifestyle”, which is, in turn, seen as exclusive, judgemental and expensive. (I don’t say this is true, just that it is the perception.)

That makes it rather easier to understand why the Tories – and George Osborne in particular – feel comfortable striding purposefully away from their old “Vote Blue, Go Green” slogan. The Chancellor, who doubles as Conservative campaign strategist, has surely conducted a simple cost-benefit analysis. On one side of the equation is the awkwardness of being seen to jettison what was once a high-profile policy. On the other side: an easy way to appeal to Tory backbenchers. There is a large section of the Conservative party that sees Labour-era regulations to limit carbon emissions as an onerous burden on business. (As I noted in my column this week Osborne is said, in private, to speak with undisguised irritation and contempt for the Climate Act.)

A smaller, but vocal segment of Tory opinion with important cheerleaders in the media, is unpersuaded by the science of climate change in general. And there are many MPs in rural areas who channel their constituents’ rage at the prospect of wind farms accused of blighting the landscape.

The enhanced power of that wing of the party is plainly expressed in the reshuffle elevation of Owen Paterson, a vocal opponent of wind farms, to the job of Environment Secretary. Meanwhile, a low-level war of briefings and counter-briefings is well under way between the Treasury and the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) over the forthcoming Energy Bill – specifically, on the question of how incentives for investment in renewable energy are structured and how much emphasis should be placed on (unrenewable) gas as a power source. In the Spectator this week, James Forsyth reports the Prime Minister instructing John Hayes, the new Tory minister of state at DECC, to “deliver a win for our people on windfarms.” It all looks like an aggressive pincer movement against Lib Dem Energy Secretary Ed Davey. That is certainly how the Lib Dems are interpreting it.

The shift in emphasis is also provoking concerns on what is sometimes still called the “modernising” wing of the party (although increasingly Tories of all persuasions speak of that feature of the Cameron project in the past tense, some with glee, others in despair).

There are traces of angst about the party finding itself on the wrong side of a moral divide; potentially, in the long-run, on the wrong side of history. Voters might not see climate change as a big political issue, but many still recognise that it is a problem. Some Conservative MPs believed David Cameron when he said he wanted to lead the “greenest government ever” and found it a genuinely attractive proposition. For the time being, however, those eco-dissidents on the Tory benches are staying rather quiet, probably for fear of sounding sympathetic to the Lib Dems – a deeply unfashionable place to be in Conservative circles.

But there is also blunt political calculation animating concern about the Tory leadership jettisoning its green credentials before they were ever properly established. Even if voters don’t want their politicians to bang on about greenery, they haven’t forgotten that Cameron once did. The issue itself is secondary to what it says about the cavalier way in which the Prime Minister picks and chooses his beliefs. As one disillusioned Cameroon put it to me recently: “You can’t claim to be all green one minute, then forget all about it and expect people not to notice.”

This in turn feeds concerns about the influence that George Osborne has over Tory strategy. His reputation as a political chess grandmaster was lost during the Budget and hasn’t been recovered. He is more generally seen now as a relentless tactician – and a fairly crude one at that. He might see ditching green policies as a relatively cost-free way of shoring up his position with the right of the party but that doesn’t mean it makes good strategic sense.

The danger is that dismissal of environmental concerns nurtures and empowers the full-on climate change deniers in the party. That lobby then acquires the kind of fanatical and implacable character of Tory euroscepticism – an article of ideological faith rather than an agenda for practical government. Voters don’t like the European Union much, but that doesn’t mean they are wooed by a Conservative party that channels and amplifies hysterical rage against Brussels. (The issues are connected to the extent that the EU is seen as an engine of low-carbon regulation.)

What matters in terms of the fragile Tory brand is less what MPs think about Europe or the environment so much as the quixotic mania that is perceived to be driving those views. It isn’t clear how Osborne helps his party’s election prospects by being seen, almost literally, to be tilting at windmills.

Osborne is said to speak with "undisguised irritation and contempt for the Climate Act." Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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How Theresa May abandoned David Cameron's playbook – and paid a terrible price

Theresa May lost because she rejected Cameroonism, but now his approach to party management is keeping her alive. 

When she first became Prime Minister in 2016, Theresa May took an almost indecent glee in rolling back the era of David Cameron. His chancellor and closest ally, George Osborne, was sacked and the manner of his departure was briefed to the press. The Cameroon chumminess with the media was replaced by a layer of frost. Cameron’s strategy of delivering austerity to the young while channelling every possible benefit to the old was abandoned, as was the conscious attempt to reach out to affluent ethnic minorities and social liberals.

Then on 8 June, it emerged that May had rolled back another Cameron project: the first Conservative parliamentary majority in two decades, squandered with three years of the parliament left to run.

Abandoning the Cameron project – to make the party if not appealing, then at least not actively repellent to social liberals – now looks like a strategic error. She and her aides bought into the David Goodhart thesis: that politics was dividing between “somewheres” – that is, people with a strong sense of place and identity – and “anywheres” – global citizens who largely cluster in big cities.

But what she underestimated is that so-called anywheres are just as defensive of their place and their values. And they angrily defected from the Conservatives in decisive fashion across the country, but most strikingly in Canterbury, where Labour won a seat that the Conservatives have held continuously since the Great Reform Act of 1832. That also helped eradicate the party from Bristol and Cardiff, both cities the Conservatives entered the campaign hoping to turn blue. 

In turning her fire on Britain’s over-65s through the “dementia tax” and restriction of winter fuel payments, Theresa May reduced the Conservative lead among the retired. That cost her party votes across the country, without gaining any support from the young. Turnout among voters over 65 dropped slightly on 2015, as grey voters, unwilling to back Labour but also unwilling to stick with the Conservatives, stayed at home.

Similarly, with just three words in her 2016 party conference speech – “citizens of nowhere” – May undid 11 years of good work among affluent ethnic minorities by David Cameron, who worked to reassure Britain’s ethnic middle classes that they were better served by voting with their economic interests, rather than against a Conservative Party still defined in the minds of many by Enoch Powell.

Her predecessor’s success in 2015 was not just devouring the Liberal Democrats, allowing the Conservatives to make a clean sweep of Cornwall and much of the south-west, but in eroding his party’s “ethnic penalty”.

Simply put, in 2015, rich brown Britons voted in much the same way as rich white ones. That shift helped the Conservatives win seats from Labour and turn a slew of marginals into what looked like fortresses. The result which summed up that quiet shift was that of Grant Shapps, the party’s then-chairman, who ended up with a majority of 12,153 in a seat that had been Labour-held until 2005.

For most ethnic minority voters, who tend to hold a second citizenship either spiritually or materially, May’s attacks on “citizens of the world” and her public embrace of Donald Trump contributed to a sense of unease. “It’s like the second affair,” one Conservative MP despaired to me; well-heeled minority voters who had trusted David Cameron when he said his party had changed were doubly angry when it reverted to type under May.

The result was the loss on 8 June of a number of seats where affluent ethnic minorities clustered in great numbers – in Battersea, in Bedford, in Croydon Central – and the collapse of super-majorities in others, such as Putney, Gloucester and Welwyn Hatfield, all of which are now within Labour’s grasp at the next election.

May amassed a larger overall share of the vote – 42 per cent – than Cameron. But most in her party privately argue that, thanks to the collapse of Ukip and the continuing woes of the Liberal Democrats, this was an election in which the big two parties had a larger prize to fight over – and Jeremy Corbyn, not May, did the better job of thriving in the new environment.

That argument is bolstered by analysis by David Cowling, the BBC’s former head of research, which shows that May got a smaller share of the two-party total, at 51 per cent, than Cameron did in 2015, with 55 per cent.

And yet, she endures, after a fashion. The settlement between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party means that while May is certainly not strong, she is stable. Her government can last the full five years, should her party wish. Although no one expects that lengthy a spell in Downing Street, May’s political lifespan now looks likely to run longer than was thought.

The perception of May within the Tory ranks has, ironically, come full circle. At first, Conservative MPs supported her not out of any great affection – she has never cultivated a phalanx of loyalists as George Osborne did – but because the other candidates had either been blown up or had blown themselves up. Grudging admiration turned into respect when their constituents seemed to fall in love with her. But as her maladroit campaign and her tone-deaf response to the Grenfell Tower tragedy turned voters against May, MPs, too, reverted to their original assessment.

Only dissatisfaction with the possible replacements keeps her in place. Conservative MPs look at the available field of talent at the top of the Cabinet table and find them all wanting – either through lack of talent, or, in the case of Amber Rudd, a majority so small as to make her leadership an ongoing psychodrama about her own survival. Small wonder that the two candidates most frequently talked up – Philip Hammond and David Davis – are largely spoken of as interim solutions, better placed to promote new faces in a bid to revive the party.

For that reason, May has cause to thank her predecessor. David Cameron’s reluctance to reshuffle his Cabinet means that the top of the Conservative Party looks much like it did when he first became leader. And it is the lack of a fresh alternative to Theresa May that means Conservative MPs adhere to her, not out of affection, but for want of anything better.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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