Why have Tory MEPs rejected a free market solution to climate change?

By sabotaging reform of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, Conservative MEPs have shown that they can't be relied upon to champion British interests in Europe.

It may surprise some on the centre left but there is nothing innate to conservatism that makes it less able to take pragmatic decisions in favour of sensible environmental policy. It has had a refreshing ability to acknowledge the intrinsic value of nature and stewardship even if it has become more conflicted about the means to deliver these outcomes. It is a broad church that spans from the one nation Heseltines to the radical free marketeers like John Redwood. But if there is one thing that unites them, it’s the belief that markets offer most of the answers. Which is why it is so baffling that Conservative MEPs voted down a measure that might have kept the European Emissions Trading Scheme alive. Trading is not the only way of tackling emissions but it’s the poster child of free market thinkers because it promises an economically efficient, non-regulatory solution to a giant supranational problem.

The back story is that, on Tuesday, the EU parliament voted against a minor technocratic fix that would have rescued the floundering European carbon market, which is struggling under the weight of too many pollution permits in the system. The fix would have involved 'backloading' the sale of some excess carbon allowances to 2019, so the number of allowances in the system would be reduced, increasing the price which has dropped as low as €3 per tonne of carbon in recent months. While more profound reform is required, it would have been a first step to putting the mechanism back on track. The vote failed by 19 votes. Twenty Conservative MEPs voted against it. In doing so, they failed their constituents and UK business.

A strong carbon price across Europe is directly in the UK’s interest. Its main benefit is to provide financial incentives for switching from coal to gas, with the costs being born by coal heavy countries like Poland and Germany and rewards flowing to those that have already made the switch, like the UK. One of  Thatcher’s less controversial legacies is an energy system which has less and less coal and a relatively high proportion of gas, so UK generators and fuel suppliers stood to gain significantly from the EU carbon market fix. By voting against it, Conservative MEPs have rewarded coal at the expense of gas and Germany at the expense of the UK. This will be the first of many negative consequences arising from the failure of EU emissions trading. At our Chancellor’s insistence, the government has also introduced a carbon price floor, which means we are paying higher carbon prices than our neighbours. It creates an attractive revenue stream for the Treasury but many British businesses will now feel aggrieved that it could now be at least a decade before there is a single carbon price across Europe.

This is part of a pattern of conflicting behaviour from different parts of the Conservative Party that should worry its leaders. There is no evidence that the British public sees climate or environment as a partisan issue. It is a 'valence' issue, like national security, in which voters expect any party of government to be competent.

Emissions trading may be too obscure for the public to notice but experts in business, NGOs and academia do and,  for many, this will be another worrying sign that the Conservatives are struggling to govern coherently on one of the big issues of our age. We’ve already seen this confusion with the Energy Bill, where the Chancellor agreed to spend £7.6bn a year on new low carbon energy (mostly renewables) but then opposed a decarbonisation objective for 2030 which would have ensured that much of the equipment required would have been built in new UK turbine factories.

The debate now moves on to what 2030 climate package the EU should adopt. The UK should be at the heart of the debate, fighting for an ambitious carbon goal that matches our own. But the prime minister has yet to get his ministers to agree a common position. Whether or not the British government takes a lead, the EU will adopt a new climate package at some point in the next 18 months under pressure from France and Germany. Yesterday’s action by Conservative MEPs has made it more likely that it will be focused on fiscal and regulatory measures, and less on trading. That may turn out to be a good thing, but Conservative MEPs have just shot themselves in the foot by making market trading solutions less attractive. They have also made it considerably more difficult for David Cameron to demonstrate that his party has championed British interests in energy and climate change effectively.

Matthew Spencer is director of Green Alliance

Exhaust rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power station at Bergheim near Aachen, Germany. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide