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15 January 2007

Clarkson and Blair – tree huggers?

How Clarkson and Blair formed an unholy alliance against the 4WD - well almost...

By Sian Berry

Unlikely allies appeared all over the place this week in the battle against urban 4x4s. First Jeremy Clarkson, in his review of the new Volvo SUV in last Sunday’s Times, seemed to concede defeat, then on Tuesday even Blair was on their case. Blimey.

Clarkson was in a particularly thoughtful mood last week, at least compared with his usual bluster. Restricting his abuse of anti-4×4 campaigners to merely calling us ‘communists and cyclists’ he tempered his praise for the 4 litre V8 engine Volvo have put in their latest 4×4 with a lot of stuff about how these things just aren’t cool any more.

He admitted to being affected by a new climate of sanity in the car market: “Even I’ve caught the bug. I look at people in Range Rover Sports, which have the same level of oikishness as Shane Warne’s hairdo, and I think, ‘My God, you must have a thick skin.’”

Sales of 4x4s have indeed fallen this year by 5.5% on last year’s figures. That’s still a lot of new tanks on the streets, but the second hand market is apparently the bellwether, and prices there are falling through the floor. Clarkson says, “Trying to sell a year-old Land Cruiser is like trying to sell a year-old piece of cheese…. Without a single piece of legislation, the bubble has been pricked.”

After that, I was in danger of getting a bit carried away on Tuesday when I had a copy of ‘London Lite’ thrust into my hands on my way home from work with the headline, “Blair joins the war on 4x4s”.

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I was amazed. The one place where we have found real apathy in trying to get sensible legislation to help people choose cleaner cars has been central government itself – particularly the Treasury. And Blair hasn’t said a word on the subject ever, as far as I can tell.

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So did this news mean that Blair was finally going to push Gordon Brown into setting effective differences between bands of ‘Graduated’ Vehicle Excise Duty? (This has been recommended by just about every government advisory body, and supported by extensive market research and every opinion poll ever done on the subject.)

Actually, no. He was simply saying that he supported moves by local governments in London to put up parking charges, as well the plans for a higher congestion charge. Not a word on what might happen in the rest of the country he runs, or what he might do to help.

Looking more closely at Blair’s headlines this week, it becomes obvious that his handful of harsh words for 4x4s were just a shallow attempt to divert attention from Monday’s big gaffe about flying. In an interview for Sky’s ‘Green Week’ Blair demonstrated how he is taking the lead on cutting carbon by saying, “I’m not going to be in the situation of saying I’m not going to take holidays abroad or use air-travel. It’s just not practical.”

If you’ve seen ‘The Thick of It’, you can picture the scene in Number 10.

Malcolm, the thinly disguised Alistair Campbell figure says, “Tony you’ve made a twat of yourself over this aviation thing. You’re going to have to make it sound like you give a shit about the planet. How about slagging off 4x4s? They’re almost as unpopular as you are.”

Tony replies, “But we’re not really going to do anything about them are we? Gordon won’t have it – he’s got a Land Cruiser.”

Malcolm: “No of course we’re not going to DO anything. The last thing we want is to commit ourselves to some ball-brained scheme that might actually attempt to solve the problem, just to watch your dimwit ministers buggering it up.”

Blair: “You’re right. Doing anything is dangerous. The best thing is to wait and hope the problem goes away.”

Malcolm: “I’ve got it. This is what you’ll do. Big up what Livingstone’s doing in London with that ramped up congestion charge on 4x4s.”

Blair: “Big up Livingstone? Is it really that bad?”

Malcolm: “It’s our only chance. We’ve done sod all to help the planet, so we’ll have to grab credit from anyone we can.”