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.