Hopes of a major speech from the prime minister on environmental issues this week appear to have been dashed
It could be the perfect basis for a journalism seminar on the role of Twitter and the changing nature of reporting.
Late yesterday afternoon, the respected BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin got wind of an intriguing snippet of information and promptly tweeted: "Unconfirmed rumour that Cameron Thurs green speech cancelled because 'he is doing too many speeches'."
Cue a flurry of activity as journalists and green campaigners sought to confirm whether the speech the UK's environmental community had waited nearly two years for had really been cancelled.
Harrabin was first off the market tweeting: "Cameron will NOT do planned green speech on Thursday. Confirmed. Ed Davey will speak on behalf of greenest govt ever."
So that was that then – the green economy would, once again, not hear anything from the prime minister, who had vowed to lead the greenest government ever. Or was it?
We spoke to sources at DECC and were told that while these things are never 100 per cent confirmed for obvious reasons, they were still expecting a speech from the prime minister.
How could both Harrabin and our sources be right? The FT's Jim Pickard provided the answer with a series of tweets revealing that Cameron would attend the Clean Energy Ministerial, take some questions from the audience of ministers and business leaders, but would not give a keynote speech.
"My intell that David Cameron has not cancelled his keynote green speech on Thursday but downgraded it to Q&A," he tweeted, adding that sources in Number 10 had said "there never was a speech" and "we can press release something... no point getting five speechwriters making speech".
Harrabin responded that he too had been given further clarification, confirming that "government source now says Cameron will speak after all, but only for 5 minutes".
We spoke to sources at Number 10 this morning and got similar confirmation that the prime minister was planning to speak for "five to 10 minutes" and hold a discussion with energy ministers, but there would be no formal keynote address.
The source added that Downing Street had never confirmed there was a speech, and that talk of a major keynote address had not come from them.
So why were the entire green business, media and NGO community convinced this was going to be Cameron's first major speech on the environment? And why were reports to that effect not corrected?
The first report of the speech came from Damian Carrington at the Guardian, who, following an interview with climate change minister Greg Barker, ran a story under the headline: "David Cameron to make keynote environment speech."
Quoting Barker as trailing "a major policy intervention by the prime minister", the report promised "a major speech in front of the world's key energy and climate figures".
So was all the talk of a keynote address on the environment from Cameron always nothing more than a media construct, wishful thinking from a green community increasingly desperate for some support from the top of government?
Perhaps there was some wishful thinking, but there were plenty of opportunities for the government to downplay expectations of a major speech. Instead all interested parties, including some officials, were led to believe the prime minister was preparing to make, in Barker's words, a major "intervention".
As the well-connected Pickard observed in a blog post this morning:
"The curious thing, however, is that the expectation among NGOs, Whitehall officials, special advisers – and, yes, some Downing Street personnel – was that Cameron was going to [give a speech].
So what should we make of this? The steer from the centre is that while Cameron may have mulled a setpiece speech, it was only ever considered. And ultimately he decided it was more useful to do a roundtable with executives and politicians – and issue a press release on the side – rather than a grandstanding speech. This wouldn't require the work of five speechwriters, was how one aide put it. (Although you might argue, that's what speechwriters are for)."
We now have to wait until Thursday to see what the prime minister says during his brief appearance and whether it will prove a significant intervention to silence those critics who accuse him of failing to adequately support the UK's burgeoning green economy.
But several conclusions can already be drawn. Firstly, while some ministers within the government are 100 per cent committed to the rapid development of the green economy, for whatever reason it is still not seen as a genuinely top priority by Downing Street. Imagine the uproar if it was revealed the prime minister was not willing to give a major speech on the NHS or defence because it was not deemed a good enough use of speechwriter resources?
Secondly, anything short of a full-blooded endorsement of the green economy by Cameron on Thursday will result in further howls of outrage from environmental NGOs. There is a legitimate debate to be had over whether constant attacks on the government are an effective means of driving change or a counterproductive means of overshadowing the progress the green economy is making – but that debate will not be had this week.
And, finally, if the prime minister feels confident that a few words on the environment are sufficient, then green NGOs and businesses have to ask why this is the case. Gordon Brown and Tony Blair did not exactly deliver annual addresses on the importance of the low-carbon economy, and now Cameron is following a similar model, broadly supporting environmental measures while also ruling that there is little political capital to be gained from a more proactive stance on green issues.
It is up to green business leaders to convince the prime minister that next time it will be worth his while to clear the diary, appoint the speech writers, and deliver an inspiring address on where he stands on the UK's low-carbon economy.
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