The Tory anti-environment ideology is gaining ground; it is time for the modernisers in the party to fight back
The Conservatives have a serious problem, and I'm not just talking about the polls. The past week in Birmingham has further crystallised what was already made apparent by the recent reshuffle: the party is tacking rightwards and has little interest in reviving the modernisation agenda that helped make David Cameron the first Conservative Prime Minister in a generation.
This rightward shift makes a certain kind of sense on a number of fronts. As Tory spin doctors have been keen to point out, a significant majority of the public is far closer to traditional Conservative positions on topics such as Europe, immigration, law and order, and welfare, than the liberal commentariat would have you believe. But on countless other issues Cameron's bowing to the right of his party looks staggeringly short-sighted. If Lord Ashcroft's much-heralded polling is anything to go by, the shelving of the modernisation agenda and the failure to address the public's concern about Conservative stewardship of beloved institutions such as the NHS represents a one-way ticket to electoral defeat (assuming, of course, that George Osborne does not manage to engineer a historically unprecedented economic recovery).
As this reality dawns on those modernisers who helped deliver David Cameron's successful detoxification agenda (and helped him get elected as both party leader and prime minister) it is laying the foundations for a serious internal scrap as the modernisers start to push back against the ascendant voices from the right. They are not just fighting for the Conservatives' electoral prospects at the next election, they are also fighting for the future of the party – and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Tories' deeply conflicted approach to environmental issues.
The hostility of powerful figures within the Conservative Party towards the green agenda is well documented and was all too apparent in Birmingham.
There are Conservative MPs and ministers who do not think climate change is an issue worth worrying about, who salivate at the prospect of shale gas drilling in their constituency, who loathe renewables in general and wind farms in particular, and who believe that the green economy is little more than an over-subsidised, over-hyped niche. They accuse environmentalists of being beholden to green ideologies, but ironically refuse to recognise the anti-green ideology they have subscribed to. So renewable energy is unfairly subsidised, but tax breaks for shale gas and financial support for energy intensive industries are sensible incentives; wind farms are a costly burden on the public, but financial guarantees for nuclear power plants are strategically important; governments should not pick winners, unless the winners being picked are our winners. Frustratingly, there is an astute understanding that free-market principles should be applied to deliver decarbonisation by pricing the externality that carbon emissions represent, but absolutely no appetite for advancing the case for sensible and effective levels of carbon pricing.
This may be a caricature of a typically anti-green Tory MP, but judging by the fringe session I chaired on green growth with Environment Secretary Owen Paterson it is based pretty firmly on reality. Influential figures within the party remain entirely wedded to a high carbon growth at all costs model, which they justify by belittling or completely dismissing climate change concerns and positioning continued reliance on fossil fuels as the "realistic", "grown up", and "cost-effective" path.
This anti-green sentiment has always been present within the Conservative Party, but the appointment of Paterson and Chancellor George Osborne's current fixation with driving gas investment means it is starting to have a serious effect on policy and investor sentiment, as evidenced by the two letters from green business leaders this week (one of which made the front page of The Times) bemoaning the impact of political risk on their planned investments.
However, there are significant short and long-term risks attached to this approach, which the modernisers who originally developed the "vote blue, go green" strategy are all too aware of.
In the short term, embracing "nasty party" environmental policies might play well in the Conservative heartlands, but they will do nothing to help the party win the marginal seats it needs to command a majority at the next election. As polling has consistently shown, clear majorities are in favour of renewable energy, supportive of green growth, and keen to see more ambitious action on climate change. People are much less fond of a party that runs for election under the slogan "vote blue, go green", and then reverts to selling off forests, shooting badgers, and demonising wind farms.
In the long term, the problem is more serious still. If the various Tory blogs and thinkers who clearly regard themselves as both the gate-keepers of true Conservatism and the vanguard of a "British Tea Party" are successful in their desire to establish climate scepticism and anti-green sentiment as a form of Tory virility test, then the party risks following the Republicans down the science-denying rabbit hole. Neither climate change, nor the green economy are going away and any party that allows itself to become characterised as hostile to these issues is only going to end up putting more and more distance between itself and voters.
Thankfully, Tory modernisers near the top of the party are all too aware of this risk and, according to several sources, are unwilling to see the green agenda they spent so long developing mercilessly trashed by their colleagues. These "green Tories" (I have heard the phrase "Turquoise Tories" floated as an alternative name for the group) are more numerous than many political observers believe, extend well beyond the usual suspects who speak regularly in support of green issues, and, best of all, have a powerful centre-right narrative that is entirely compatible with environmental action.
As Climate Change Minister Greg Barker lucidly explained, the Conservatives start from a position where their actual green policy record is far stronger than they are given credit for. From Thatcher's early interest in climate change to this government's plans for the Green Deal, the Green Investment Bank, electricity market reform, and clean tech investment there are plenty of green Tory accomplishments. The current policy environment might be a long way from perfect for green firms, but the primary problem for the green economy at the moment is with political rhetoric and uncertainty, rather than policy detail.
Moreover, there is a pretty compelling centre-right market-led argument for tackling climate change and driving green growth through the creation of a stable, yet light touch, policy framework and the adoption of effective carbon pricing mechanisms. This, after all, is what many of the world's most successful businesses want, and it is strange that the self-styled "party of business" is reluctant to give it to them.
As we reported earlier this week, there are senior Tories who are amazed that their colleagues do not understand the need for action and are happy to bury their heads in the sand, waiting for the point at which climate change impacts and international clean tech competition necessitate more, not less, government involvement in the economy.
For businesses, this fight for the future of Conservative thinking on the environment really matters. If the anti-greens win out we risk two years of political stasis on environmental issues as the Tories and the Lib Dems fight each other to a stand-still, followed by the very real risk of a generation during which one of the two largest political parties in the country seeks to actively undermine the green economy on ideological grounds. As witnessed yesterday, by Siemens' announcement that it is delaying a decision on a new offshore wind turbine manufacturing plant (on the same day as the Prime Minister praised the UK's offshore wind industry) Conservative hostility to the green agenda is already impacting corporate investment. In contrast, if the modernisers win out and Cameron backs them, then not only will Conservative electoral prospects be substantially increased, but green investors can expect to operate in a significantly more supportive environment.
I understand some of the UK's leading business figures are well aware of the importance of this battle and are preparing to make it plainer still that they are deadly serious about green growth and are firmly on the side of the modernisers. The Whitehall rumour mill suggests that ultimately the Prime Minister is on their side too and remains privately committed to much of the green agenda. Yet at the same time his decision to devote just one short sentence to environmental issues in a 6,000-word conference speech demonstrates the extent to which he no longer feels the green economy is central to his pitch to both the party and the country.
It is up to green-minded Tories and business leaders to redouble their efforts and provide Cameron with the political cover he requires to face down the anti-green forces within his own party and revive those parts of the modernisation agenda that made him Prime Minister in the first place.
The Conservatives do have a serious problem with the green economy, but thankfully it is not yet insurmountable.
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