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13 February 2024updated 14 Feb 2024 5:14pm

Chris Skidmore: The Kingswood by-election is “the opposite of Uxbridge”

The former minister on why he quit as a Tory MP, his co-authorship of Britannia Unchained and how the party lost its way on net zero.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Chris Skidmore has been thinking a lot about Dunwich.

This small village on the Suffolk coast, he tells me, was one the biggest cities in Medieval England. Now, it has a population of 200 people. What happened?

“There was a global warming period,” the former science and innovation minister explains. Over 800 years, the sea level rose and the coastline was eroded. Forget the environmental consequences, he argues, what happened to Dunwich was “economically catastrophic”. “Where is the law? Property ownership rights all dissolve. People start killing each other.”

It’s not hard to see the point Skidmore is making. A minister under both Theresa May and Boris Johnson, his environmental convictions have pushed him increasingly further away from the current iteration of the Conservative Party. In September, when Rishi Sunak announced his government was abandoning many of its key net zero promises, Skidmore wrote for the New Statesman: “the Prime Minister has managed to send a signal on net zero that has undermined Britain’s competitiveness, destabilised business confidence, and betrayed a manifesto promise to the very voters that swept the Conservative Party to power in 2019 on the back of a historic majority.”

Then in January, just before a vote on the government’s new oil and gas licence bill, Skidmore announced he was not only resigning the Conservative whip but quitting as an MP, triggering a by-election in the marginal seat of Kingswood on the outskirts of Bristol.

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As voters head to the polls on 15 February, it’s yet another contest the Tories look destined to lose. Skidmore’s decision sparked fury from the Tory right, with suggestions his resignation had been motivated by the prospect of a lucrative role in the green energy industry. It was, according to one anonymous Tory MP, “self-regarding claptrap from a man more interested in burnishing his credentials as an eco-lobbyist than his constituents.”

When we meet shortly before the by-election, in a Westminster café, Skidmore shrugs off the criticism. He says he was expecting to be “demonised or seen as some kind of zealot”, but it doesn’t bother him.

The point he wanted to make was that the pivot away from the net zero mission signed into law under May and championed by Johnson was “the greatest mistake of Rishi Sunak’s premiership”. He felt the move had been driven by the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election in July 2023, in which the Tories managed to retain the seat by 495 votes, largely due to the extension of Sadiq Khan’s £12.50-a-day Ulez charge across outer London. The notion that turning away from pro-climate measures could help the Conservatives recover electorally was, he believed, the wrong lesson – hence the need for another by-election.

“I felt, I have to try to reset the narrative in some way, reframe it. I’ve got to throw my own career, political career at least, away as well, knowing that that’s going to have an impact, to try to negate the impact of the first by-election,” he tells me. “The point here is that this election [in Kingswood] would not have needed to happen if the Conservative Party hadn’t taken the decisions it’s taken to row back net zero and climate action… It’s the opposite of Uxbridge.”

For Skidmore, the entire argument pitched by right-wing Tories and populist parties such as Reform UK around net zero being “too costly” and detrimental to British jobs is the wrong way to look at it. “Climate leadership is an economic opportunity as much as an environmental necessity,” he argues. His stance against the new oil and gas licences was as much about jobs and economic resilience as it was about climate change.

“My real worry is we’re repeating the mistakes of the 1980s,” he says, warning of “stranded jobs and stranded assets” in Britain’s oil and gas industry. “We needed to transition those jobs – highly skilled, brilliant workers – to new clean and renewable alternatives.”

Skidmore, 42, has been on an interesting journey since first being elected as an MP in 2010. A historian by training (he has published four history books and is currently considering writing a fifth on the lessons from Dunwich’s sorry fate), he was handed the universities, science, research and innovation brief in December 2018 by May. “I’d go round meeting all these different projects, and the bulk of them were about new materials, decarbonising, thinking about the future,” he recalls. “And I was like, actually this is not just about a climate question now, this is a solution so many other problems.”

Then in spring 2019, in the dying days of the May administration, the minister for energy and clean growth announced she was taking a leave of absence for personal reasons. Skidmore was awarded her brief in the interim. He was, he says, “in the right place at the right time”, and was the minister who signed the UK’s net zero pledge into law. It was a historic moment: Britain was the first G7 country to make a net zero pledge legally binding.

“I didn’t realise at all the impact that would have globally,” he recalls. “I’d been doing negotiations behind the scenes to secure our presidency of COP. And then all the countries wanted to back our presidency.” Suddenly the UK, long mired in tortuous Brexit negotiations, was being considered a world leader. French officials were refusing to engage with Britain on anything EU-related, “but on climate this was a different world”.

Before he was championing Britain’s green endeavours on the world stage, Skidmore was associated with a very different wing of the Conservative Party. In 2012 he collaborated with four fellow Tory MPs from the 2010 intake to publish Britannia Unchained: Global Lessons for Growth and Prosperity. The book has since become infamous, in part because of its radical free-market stance (the UK, it argued, was falling behind other countries due to its “bloated state, high taxes and excessive regulation”) but also because of the role its authors went on to play in British politics: Skidmore shared a byline with Liz Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Dominic Raab and Priti Patel.

Skidmore jokes that, among that line-up, he could be considered “the Pete Best of the Britannia Unchained Beatles”. But he is unapologetic about his role in the book and the argument he was trying to make.

“It’s held up as a right-wing bible, but for me, it was still around investment and strategic thought, about how we recognise the technologies and industries of the future,” he says, noting that his chapter considered R&D spending and the lessons the UK could learn from innovation leaders such as Israel. (The authors originally took collective responsibility for the book as a whole, but have since acknowledged that they each focused on individual chapters.)

With the book now closely associated with the hardline, Eurosceptic right, Skidmore points out that it had nothing to do with Brexit. (Along with Truss, he backed Remain in the 2016 EU referendum.) “So I would defend my chapter. You can go away and read it – I don’t think it’s says anything different from what I’m saying now, which is you invest to create that strategic long-term comparative advantage.”

I ask Skidmore how he feels about the radically different paths the authors took. He shrugs.

“Obviously all the others became members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet. I wasn’t. And they all went on to be great offices of state. I mean, so what? They didn’t achieve anything. I signed net zero into law. I got the greatest uplift in R&D in a generation. I’m pretty happy with my achievements are the ones that are going to outlast, versus being in Boris Johnson’s cabinet for a year or being chancellor under Liz Truss for 46 days.” (In fact, Kwarteng was only chancellor for 38 days.)

Truss, he says, invited him to be a minister in her short-lived government; he turned her down, but accepted her offer to launch the UK’s net zero review, looking into how Britain could meet its climate commitments in a way that championed growth, ensured economic security and created opportunities for business. This mission-oriented review was published in January 2023, three months after Truss had been forced to resign. Skidmore says he mentioned it to her in the lobby at the time, only for the former PM to respond “Oh, I forgot that I even commissioned that.” He refers to it as “a rare Edward VIII coin… because what else did the [Truss] government achieve from a policy perspective? The net zero review is one of the few things that actually outlasted her premiership. So she should be proud!”

Back in 2012, the website ConservativeHome listed Skidmore as one of the Tory party’s most loyal MPs. Three general elections and four changes of leader later, he and the party have moved so far apart he has quit as an MP to send them a message. When I ask if he still considers himself a Conservative he equivocates. “Everyone just thinks in terms of political affiliation and allegiance.”

His priority now, he reiterates, is working towards net zero with anyone, from any party: MPs, mayors, local councils. We spoke before Labour announced it was abandoning its £28bn green investment pledge – at the time Skidmore was approving of Labour’s ambition and commitment to a long-term goal which would build business confidence and encourage private investment. For him, it’s all about ensuring that other places in Britain don’t go the same way as Dunwich.

I ask if he’s backing anyone in the Kingswood by-election and he hesitates, then says he admires the Tory candidate personally but has resolved not to interfere.

His endorsement would be unlikely to matter much. Labour are the clear favourites to win the seat. But Skidmore doesn’t seem all that interested in the result. Again, he’s looking to the long-term.

“I’m pretty sure in 10 years’ time people will look back and go ‘I can’t believe that MP had to resign over this bill’… It’s all about what legacy you want to leave and I’m pretty content with the legacy I’ve left.”

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