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.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.