Cameron finally challenges the Tory climate change deniers

The PM says "scientists are giving us a very certain message" but will his policies match his rhetoric?

Since telling the public to "vote blue, go green" in 2006 and pledging in opposition to lead "the greenest government ever", David Cameron has had little to say on climate change. In the three and a half years since he entered No. 10, the PM hasn't made a single speech on the subject, nor attended a UN environmental summit. Emboldened by his silence, Tory climate change deniers have rushed to fill the void. Energy minister Michael Fallon has described climate change as "theology" and Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has declared: "People get very emotional about this subject and I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries." [The 12 warmest years have all come in the last 15.] Tory MPs have put forward a bill to abolish the Department for Energy and Climate Change, and George Osborne has repeatedly posited a false choice between growth and green energy investment.

But confronted by the devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan, which some attribute to climate change, Cameron has found his voice again. He told reporters during his trip to Sri Lanka:

"There is no doubt there have been an increasing number of severe weather events in recent years. And I'm not a scientist but it's always seemed to me one of the strongest arguments about climate change is, even if you're only 90 per cent certain or 80 per cent certain or 70 per cent certain, if I said to you there's a 60 per cent chance your house might burn down do you want to take out some insurance? You take out some insurance. I think we should think about climate change like that.

"Scientists are giving us a very certain message. Even if you're less certain than the scientists it makes sense to act both in terms of trying to prevent and mitigate.

"So I'll leave the scientists to speak for themselves about the link between severe weather events and climate change. The evidence seems to me to be growing. As a practical politician I think the sensible thing is to say let's take preventative and mitigating steps given the chances this might be the case."

Admirable words, but will they be supported by policy? At present, the UK's greenhouse gas emissions are rising, not falling, with investment in clean energy at a seven-year low and Britain forecast to miss its carbon reduction targets. Against the advice of the climate change select commitee, Cameron refused to include a 2030 decarbonisation target in the energy bill, despite an estimated saving of £958 to £1,724 for each household and the potential creation of up to 48,000 new jobs.

More recently, in an attempt to counter Labour's proposed energy price freeze, he has pledge to "roll back" green taxes, with no apparent consideration given to the environmental consequences. The energy and climate change commitee warned in response: "Backtracking on these legally binding contracts will damage policy credibility, seriously undermine investor confidence and could increase the cost of capital for new energy investments – thus pushing up energy bills".

But with the PM's green conscience stirring again, is he about to perform another volte-face? As ever with Cameron, one can never be sure what he really believes.

David Cameron gestures during a press conference held on the second day of the Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Seven things we learnt from the Battle for Number 10

Jeremy Corbyn emerged the better as he and Theresa May faced a live studio audience and Jeremy Paxman. 

1. Jeremy Corbyn is a natural performer

The Labour leader put in a bravura performance in both the audience Q&A and in his tussle with Jeremy Paxman. He is often uncomfortable at Prime Minister’s Questions but outside of the Commons chamber he has the confidence of a veteran of countless panels, televised discussions and hustings.

If, like me, you watched him at more hustings in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016 than you care to count, this performance wasn’t a surprise. Corbyn has been doing this for a long time and it showed.

2. And he’s improving all the time

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t quite perfect in this format, however. He has a temper and is prone to the odd flash of irritation that looks bad on television in particular. None of the four candidates he has faced for the Labour leadership – not Yvette Cooper, not Andy Burnham, not Liz Kendall and not Owen Smith – have managed to get under his skin, but when an interviewer has done so, the results have never been pretty for the Labour leader.

The big fear going into tonight for Corbyn was that his temper would get the better of him. But he remained serene in the fact of Paxman’s attempts to rile him until quite close to the end. By that point, Paxman’s frequent interruptions meant that the studio audience, at least, was firmly on Corbyn’s side.

3. Theresa May was wise to swerve the debates

On Jeremy Corbyn’s performance, this validated Theresa May’s decision not to face him directly. He was fluent and assured, she was nervous and warbly.  It was a misstep even to agree to this event. Anyone who decides their vote as far as TV performances tonight will opt for Jeremy Corbyn, there’s no doubt of that.

But if she does make it back to Downing Street it will, in part, be because in one of the few good moves of her campaign she chose to avoid debating Corbyn directly.

4.…but she found a way to survive

Theresa May’s social care U-Turn and her misfiring campaign mean that the voters don’t love her as they once did. But she found an alternate route through the audience Q&A, smothering the audience with grimly dull answers that mostly bored the dissent out of listeners.

5. Theresa May’s manifesto has damaged her. The only question is how badly

It’s undeniable now that Theresa May’s election campaign has been a failure, but we still don’t know the extent of the failure. It may be that she manages to win a big majority by running against Jeremy Corbyn. She will be powerful as far as votes in the House of Commons but she will never again be seen as the electoral asset she once was at Westminster.

It could be that she ends up with a small majority in which case she may not last very much longer at Downing Street. And it could be that Jeremy Corbyn ends up defeating her on 8 June.

That the audience openly laughed when she talked of costings in her manifesto felt like the creaking of a rope bridge over a perilous ravine. Her path may well hold until 8 June, but you wouldn’t want to be in her shoes yourself and no-one would bet on the Conservative Party risking a repeat of the trip in 2022, no matter what happens in two weeks’ time.

6. Jeremy Paxman had a patchy night but can still pack a punch

If Jeremy Paxman ever does produce a collected Greatest Hits, this performance is unlikely to make the boxset. He tried and failed to rouse Jeremy Corbyn into anger and succeeded only in making the audience side with the Labour leader. So committed was he to cutting across Theresa May that he interrupted her while making a mistake.

He did, however, do a better job of damaging Theresa May than he did Jeremy Corbyn.  But not much better.

7. Theresa May may have opposed Brexit, but now she needs it to save her

It’s not a good sign for the sitting Prime Minister that the audience laughed at many of her statements. She had only one reliable set of applause lines: her commitment to getting the best Brexit deal.

In a supreme irony, the woman who opposed a Leave vote now needs the election to be a referendum re-run if she is to secure the big majority she dreams of. 

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

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