Soon-to-be prime minister represented the best candidate for the UK's green community, but she now faces a host of significant environmental policy challenges
I was planning to write a blog this week about whether Andrea Leadsom or Theresa May would make the greener prime minister. Those best-laid plans were, of course, demolished the moment the energy minister demonstrated she had the self-awareness to accept what had become painfully apparent: she was not suited to the top job and her pursuit of it risked heaping more instability and division on a country and political class already buckling under the strain of the fallout from Brexit.
In case you're interested, the blog would have argued that for all Leadsom's stated support for action on climate change, the multiple questions about her level of ministerial experience, contradictory policy positions (support for attachment parenting and axed maternity rights – how does that even begin to work?), and backing from the climate-sceptic wing of the Conservative Party would have had alarm bells ringing across the green economy.
Consequently, I'd have argued that May would represent the best bet for green businesses – a view endorsed by those green Tories who lined up to voice their support for our soon-to-be prime minister, despite her near-complete silence on environmental issues throughout a lengthy political career.
However, the case for May as prime minister can now be usefully repurposed for the inevitable 'what does Theresa May mean for green businesses'.
BusinessGreen understands that a number of Tory MPs from the modernising wing of the party, including energy and climate change secretary Amber Rudd, sought assurances from May and her team that action on climate change and the wider environment would remain a priority. Such assurances were satisfactorily provided.
May's narrow focus on the Home Office for the past six years (one of the secrets of her success) may have meant her public record on the environment is close to non-existent, but she is known to have supported the Climate Change Act and has never really flirted with the climate-sceptic wing of the party. She is on record as once opposing Heathrow expansion and arguing that the Climate Change Act would boost UK security, health and economic competitiveness. There is no reason at this stage to fear a downgrading of the UK's low-carbon ambition.
The likelihood is that May will seek to continue with the current strategy of combining decarbonisation with measures to limit costs to consumers and enhance energy security. The strategy has had decidedly mixed results, driving record investment in some clean tech areas, while undermining spending in other key areas and contradictorily reining in energy efficiency and low-cost renewables investment. But a continuation of the current policy framework, especially with the promise of an ambitious fifth carbon budget and new measures to meet it, is a lot better than what would have been unleashed by the climate-sceptic government some feared would be delivered by a successful Brexit neo-con coup.
There is also growing confidence that green regulations could prove one element of the Brexit negotiations that might yet deliver a good deal for the UK. The emergence of a Remain campaigner, albeit a slightly reluctant one, as the next prime minister means we are likely to see a negotiation process that is more pragmatic than ideological. The public likes the EU environmental regulations that have given them clean beaches and biodiverse habitats. May is much less likely than any of the other leadership candidates to embark on an ideological war on red tape, as well as being better positioned to resist calls for a bonfire of environmental protections from those on the right of the party who helped deliver Brexit and then promptly excused themselves from the scene.
May's pragmatic pitch to the centre ground was further underlined this morning in a fascinating speech that promised a new industrial strategy and drastic reforms to corporate governance to get workers on boards and encouraging more long-termism among businesses. In parts, it was the kind of speech a competent and credible green-leaning, centrist Labour leader could have given. In fact, it is not a million miles away from a speech Ed Miliband did give. There is a reason why politicians keep harking back to the concept of 'one nation': it is the base camp from which you win elections.
Sadly, none of that guarantees that May will be a successful green prime minister – except in the narrow sense that the rapid improvement in clean technology means each new leader almost certainly oversees a greener economy than the last. Regardless of Labour's implosion, May will face one of the shortest honeymoons in political history. She now has to deliver a workable Brexit deal, stop the economy tanking, and see off the threat from UKIPers, both within the Conservative Party and outside it, who will interpret Leadsom's departure from the race as an establishment stitch-up. The temptation to throw the environment under a diesel-spewing bus by giving prime green ministerial posts to those openly hostile to the environmental agenda will be ever present.
More specifically, crucial policy decisions await May and whoever she selects to head up the government's green departments. The promised carbon plan will have to be genuinely transformational if it is to provide investor certainty and put the UK back on track to meet its emission targets. In addition, the plan for nature needs to be similarly ambitious, while urgent action is required on waste and recycling, the Hinkley Point deal, airport expansion, clean tech innovation, fracking, and climate resilience if the UK's disparate and contradictory environmental strategies are to be stitched into an effective green industrial strategy.
There is plenty of scope for May to deliver green growth and jobs right across the economy, in keeping with her One Nation pitch to party and country. But then again, a reputation as a political pragmatist cuts both ways. It is easy to envisage a situation where UKIP, the Tory right, and climate-reckless media proprietors engineer scenarios where the path of least political resistance for a still-novice prime minister distracted by Brexit starts to involve Heathrow approval, fast-tracked fracking, austerity cuts for green programmes, axed environmental red tape, and the scrapping of new nuclear projects to be replaced by more gas power and an extended life for coal plants.
It is a polluting path forward the new prime minister will have to categorically reject. Instead, the priority should be to resist the temptation to curry favour with climate sceptics, whom David Cameron's experience with the EU referendum proves can never be satisfied; restore economic confidence throughout the Brexit process by supporting the green industries of tomorrow; reform corporate governance to focus on the long term; and deliver some much needed environmental policy stability – achieve all that, and then Theresa May might just end up being remembered as the green prime minister who led Britain out of environmental and constitutional crisis.
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