Crude, unpopular, and Windefensible

As today’s Greenpeace investigation proves, Cameron needs to stand up to the climate sceptic fringe and stop his own MPs betraying his electoral hopes

14 Nov 2012, 10:51

Well, it's hardly Watergate is it? It took years to unravel the conspiring of the Nixon administration, Chris Heaton-Harris' guerrilla activities were uncovered within a couple of months by some Greenpeace campaigners with a camcorder. The quality of the Tory MP's plotting and political manoeuvring would look clumsy in a sixth form common room election. The only rational response to someone purportedly fronting an organisation called "Windefensible" is to laugh.

But then again, rationality isn't really the strong point of the Conservative's anti-green fringe. If the best those virulently opposed to wind farms, renewable energy, and any action to tackle climate change can muster is a staggeringly cack-handed political and media campaign, which according to recent polls was operating within the margin of error of garnering precisely zero per cent of public support then perhaps green businesses should stop fretting so much. For all his florid columns and bizarrely aggressive pronouncements about the green threat to humanity, Delingpole's Corby campaign was on track to become one of the most embarrassing enterprises in the long and ignoble history of joke political campaigns. Before his withdrawal from the race, a poll of over 1,500 people revealed that just two were intending to vote for the Aldi Rush Limbaugh.

The reason there is a growing whiff of desperation about everything Delingpole and his acolytes attempt is that nothing they try is working.

Environmentalists worry about the manner in which green issues have slipped down the list of people's priorities at a time of economic hardship, but a closer look at the polls reveals that concern about the environment and support for the green economy remains remarkably strong.

A clear majority reject the climate sceptic frothing at the mouth about a global "hoax", accepting that the climate is changing, mankind is playing a role, and it is a serious problem. More pertinently for Heaton-Harris and Delingpole's anti-wind campaign, recent polls show 67 per cent of people favour having a wind farm close to their home over shale gas developments, while 55 per cent want more wind farms in the UK. Equally, all that campaigning to link rising energy bills to renewable energy subsidies, all those loquacious columns, and front pages from their friends at the Daily Mail have not worked: 11 per cent of people think environmental policies are the main cause of rising bills, compared to 17 per cent who identified the rising price of oil and gas, and 58 per cent who blamed "energy companies taking bigger profits".

Delingpole and Heaton-Harris are a long way from public opinion on this (and many other issues) and they are moving further away all the time.

The problem is that, despite the absurdity of it all, their juvenile plotting still matters, both for the UK economy and the future of the Conservative Party.

Heaton-Harris' supporters were this morning in full damage limitation mode, insisting there is nothing remiss about the Conservative Party's campaign manager in Corby working with a rival campaign on an issue they agree on. How they can trot out this line with a straight face is beyond me. Does anyone really think Number 10 is going to shrug off such a blatant betrayal during a by-election, particularly when it looks increasingly likely that the Conservatives will lose?

Cameron is not in a strong enough position to remove the whip from a backbench MP who is popular with the right of the party, but this scandal will hammer home what he has known for months: the project to win the 40 additional seats the Party needs to secure a majority government in 2015 is under all-out assault from a cabal of MPs who, in the memorable phrase used by Heaton-Harris, want to make right wing fringe concerns like wind farms "part of the DNA" of the party. Cameron needs to face down this Tea Party tendency now or see his electoral hopes go up in smoke.

He also needs to urgently get a grip on UK energy policy or risk seeing billions of pounds of new investment disappear over the horizon.

Energy Minister John Hayes has denied any direct involvement with Heaton-Harris' plotting, despite Heaton-Harris' on video suggestion he was in the loop. But Hayes appearance on Channel 4 news last night made two things clear: he doesn't really understand how the gas market works and he categorically does not want to see anymore onshore wind farms beyond what is in the planning pipeline (and he does not even want to see all of that built). Obviously others within the government see a future for wind farms in the UK, but given statements like last night's from the Energy Minister would you invest in putting a new wind farm into the planning system or building a new factory to provide turbine components?

There is a clear route out of this wind farm civil war for the Conservative Party based on a commitment to reducing renewable energy subsidies over time, much greater community ownership of onshore wind farms and involvement of local communities in planning decisions, and a leadership that is willing to make it clear that climate scepticism is a vote-loser.

The question is whether the Party is smart enough to follow this route and forge an effective centre right response to climate change and the green economy, or whether it wants to hand the reins to those who would betray their own Party in order to tilt at windmills.

  
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Previously known as the BusinessGreen Blog, James' Blog features musings, observations and occasional rants from BusinessGreen editor James Murray

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