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Sending Boris Johnson to the Foreign Office is bad for Britain, good for Theresa May

Britain's new Prime Minister is moving to ensure if Brexit goes wrong, the Brexiteers will share the blame

Towards the end of his term in office, a despairing Bill Clinton complained to Tony Blair that the reason for George W. Bush’s political success was that “he criticised one thing on the right. He is making them think he is saving them from the right.”

That is part of what makes Theresa May Labour’s most dangerous opponent. Her attacks on her own party, the police and her efforts to increase the number of women and minority Conservative MPs, make her a trickier foe than any of the politicians she overcame to replace David Cameron.

But she also showed the other reason why the left should fear that she will be resident in Downing Street for a longtime with her canny first moves to form her Cabinet. Her early backers in the Cabinet were rewarded – Philip Hammond, the biggest beast to endorse her bid for the leadership, moves from the Foreign Office to the Treasury, and Amber Rudd moves from the Department of Energy and Climate Change to the Home Office – with the much-expected installation of Hammond to the Treasury no less significant for it being advertised in advance.

Just as with Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to overrule many of his own allies and put John McDonnell in as shadow chancellor, May will start with the all-important unity between Downing Street and the Treasury without which no government can prosper. (Blair and Brown were divided over who should lead the Labour party and the Euro, but united on almost everything else of substance.)

Crucially, on the issue that will dominate May’s government – the negotiation of Britain’s exit from the European Union – Hammond and her have been at one. While the Treasury is not an official player in Brexit talks, as Harold Wilson once quipped,  “whoever is in office, the Treasury is in power”, and that will remain the case.

But the really clever moves were around Brexit. The big difficulty for Britain is that there is a path to the country flourishing outside the European Union – it just involves breaking almost all of the promises made by Vote Leave. May risks being smashed up by the boosters of Brexit, who will, whatever happens, blame her for muffing up the negotiations – not them or their allies in the press for a mendacious campaign.

In as Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union is David Davis, an Outer of long and respected vintage in the Conservative party, and, having served as Europe minister for three years, has serious experience of the European Union. In at the newly-created Department for International Trade is Liam Fox, another Brexiteer, whose friendship May has cultivated over long years – the reward for which was his immediate endorsement following his exit from the Tory race and with it another signal that Tory supporters of a Leave vote could trust May to deliver Brexit.

Those two appointments are the beginning of the three-card trick with which May has rewarded and neutralised her most dangerous opponent, Boris Johnson. Johnson has been given the Foreign Office, notionally the grandest office – and certainly the grandest building – in the British government. But he has lost responsibility for negotiating the terms of British exit, trade is now the responsibility of Fox, and most Prime Ministers stray freely into the Foreign Office brief.

Johnson’s many eruptions and indiscretions over his long career as a columnist will be a cause for occasional embarrassment  for Downing Street. But it will keep him out of the country, unable to sustain a rebel following in the parliamentary party, and crucially, makes the Brexiteers responsible for the failures of Brexit.

On this evidence, Theresa May will be Prime Minister for as long as she wants.  

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

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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