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To protect net zero we must learn from the Brexit campaign, says Tory MP Chris Skidmore

The former energy minister on why Conservatives championing fracking and gas are betraying their own party.

By Philippa Nuttall

In words and on paper, at least, Boris Johnson has kept climate action in the limelight, and largely succeeded in selling Britain as a climate action leader. As the Prime Minister’s star wanes, however, Conservatives ideologically opposed to reducing reliance on fossil fuels are crawling out of the party’s woodwork, led by the former Brexit minister Steve Baker and Craig Mackinlay, previously deputy leader of Ukip.

But the Tory MP Chris Skidmore argues that such characters are in the minority and many more of his peers are firmly behind the transition to a net-zero emissions economy. Journalists should focus on giving these politicians a voice, he argues.

The centre-right Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail are generally seen as pushing the anti-net zero agenda in the UK, while the left-leaning Guardian has made it its mission to drive climate action. Skidmore, nonetheless, accuses the Guardian of giving too much space to members of his party who prefer to push oil, gas and fracking, highlighting the paper’s recent stories about the Net Zero Scrutiny Group set up by Baker and Mackinlay.

Coverage by the Guardian, and other media, suggests the anti-net zero contingent inside the Tory party is more significant than it is in reality, Skidmore told the New Statesman. “The Net Zero Scrutiny Group is 19 people who get disproportionate media coverage,” he said. “This is creating a false narrative.” There are plenty of MPs in the Conservative Environment Network who are happy to speak to the press, but they rarely get coverage, he suggested. Several members of his party took to Twitter this week to make clear that they had not signed a letter urging the government to support fracking and to underline their support for the clean energy transition.

Skidmore, 40, a published historian, is MP for Kingswood in south England. In a recent tweet he described net zero as “a Conservative policy designed to conserve our environment for future generations at the same time as recognising that the green transition must also deliver clean growth and a clear economic future for the UK”. In response to the onslaught on net zero from some in his party, in January he set up the Net Zero Support Group “to demonstrate and maintain Conservative support for net zero carbon emissions and policies needed to deliver this”. The group now boasts 25 MPs, several more than the other lot, as he points out.

“We need to tackle disinformation in the media,” but not by printing the naysayers’ arguments, insisted Skidmore. “We need to learn lessons from Brexit — don’t frame arguments around what the opposition is saying, all you are doing is amplifying their messages.” The Leave campaign focused on fears about foreign workers taking British jobs, amplified by the false suggestion that Turkey was to join the EU, and the mythical £350m the NHS would receive if London were divorced from Brussels. Repeating the opposition’s claims “plays into the populist playbook”, he added. Skidmore stuck to his guns and voted Remain.

He believes public and political support for net zero is best drummed up through a “positive programme” focused on “the wins” of moving to a clean energy economy. He highlights the falling price of renewable energies and the success of the offshore wind sector in the UK. Net zero will bring “rewards, and we have to get that over”, he said. “Our argument is that there is a huge prize.”

Winning over the crowd will also be easier if “net zero policies are divorced from climate change”, he said. “Climate change is not the only reason we are doing net zero.” Rather, Skidmore would like his peers to focus on Johnson’s plans for green industrialisation. He cites the benefits for deprived areas such as the north-east of England if the UK focuses on the “wholesale transformation” of its economy.

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“If we get the policies right, we can avoid problems,” said Skidmore. Questions about the impacts of energy choices on the cost of living are “valid, but the answer is to make the case for the benefits of clean energy”. These advantages include job creation and the fact that relying on solar, wind and, in his view, nuclear, will ultimately mean lower bills — rocketing gas prices are the main reason behind record energy bills.

If the Conservative Party doesn’t wake up to these arguments it could lose Red Wall seats in the next election, said Skidmore. He cited recent research by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), a UK think tank, which found that the majority of homes suffering from fuel poverty in England are in the north of England and the Midlands. “Thirty seven of 40 of the most marginal constituencies are being hit harder by the gas crisis because of poor housing quality,” said the report. England’s homes in general are in a poor state; more than half of them do not have adequate wall or loft insulation.

For Skidmore, insulation is “one of the biggest” problems that needs sorting. It would also help to achieve the government’s levelling up agenda. “The cost of insulation is cheap, we can take quick measures and there is huge potential to make homes healthier.” But people need support to help them pay for renovation and a green skills strategy is necessary to ensure there are enough trained workers. “We lack a whole-of-government approach,” he insisted.

Skidmore also believes that the UK “missed an opportunity” by failing to make Covid-recovery money given to companies conditional on them building back better and healthier. France is a good example of a country that put a strong focus on the green transition in its Covid-recovery package, including €5.8bn for building renovation, he said.

Ultimately, net zero now plays such a key part in the Conservative Party’s thinking and the direction of the country that a few rowdy doubters will have little impact, Skidmore suggested. He underlined its place in the party’s 2019 election manifesto, the “excellent work” done by Alok Sharma as Cop26 president and the UK’s leadership at the international climate summit, and the fact that net zero by 2050 target is enshrined in law in the Climate Change Act. 

“The key thing is to recognise that this debate is international,” said Skidmore. “Net zero is the post-Brexit narrative the UK can develop.” 

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