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

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.