The departures of Owen Paterson and Greg Barker send conflicting signals about the direction of the Tory's green agenda decarbonisation
What are the implications of the government's dramatic reshuffle for the green economy? The truth is that this is a reshuffle that is thus-far defying attempts to impose upon it a clear narrative - beyond Number 10's heavily spun suggestion that it is replacing middle aged white men with more women - and this appears to be particularly true for environmental and climate change policy.
The environmentalists' bogeyman Owen Paterson may have been sacked in reportedly intemperate circumstances, but his ministerial antithesis, climate change champion Greg Barker, is also stepping down. The incoming team with responsibility for environmental issues - Liz Truss at Defra, Matthew Hancock and Amber Rudd at DECC - are all on record as supporting action to tackle climate change, which represents a distinct improvement on Paterson. But equally none of them has a track record of campaigning on environmental issues and, in the case of Hancock in particular, their support for clean technology and renewable energy has been decidedly mixed.
Only time will tell how these Ministers respond to the challenges and opportunities presented by the green economy, and the reality is that with less than a year to the next election they do not have long to deliver much of an impact in either way. But there is a risk these changes could end up as a further blow to the increasingly battered green wing of the Conservative Party - they certainly don't signal that David Cameron is preparing to make ‘Vote Blue, go green' a central plank of his election strategy for a second time. The confusion that increasingly characterises the Conservative Party's approach to climate change - an issue that the Prime Minister still apparently regards as one of the biggest threats faced by the UK - is more evident than ever.
This confusion is particularly apparent in the contrasting fates and conflicting records of the two high profile green departures from the government, Paterson and Barker.
Paterson's sacking is undoubtedly good news for the green economy. Some of the criticism of the outgoing Environment Secretary has been unfair, and his willingness to defend the Environment Agency during last winter's floods and his delivery of Fisheries Policy reforms deserves some credit. But his dismissive attitude to climate change risks, mishandling of the badger cull, and staggeringly slow progress on water and waste policy mean there will be few green business executives who will miss Paterson. He liked to position himself as pro-business and he certainly won friends in the agri-business lobby, but I have lost count of the number of senior executives I've spoken to who despaired of Paterson's simplistically dismissive attitude to environmental regulation, the green economy, and climate change science.
Ultimately though, I doubt it was Paterson's climate change scepticism that lost him his job, as much as questions over his day-to-day performance. Plenty of commentators in the right wing media have bemoaned his departure from Defra, but few could point to any major achievements beyond his status as a Eurosceptic standard bearer. I was once informed by a reliable source that when he was appointed to the role Paterson was instructed by the Prime Minister to serve as a safe pair of hands and make sure nothing went wrong with the badger cull or Defra's challenging cuts programme. The badger's memorable "moving of the goalposts" and the scandal of cutting flood management budgets as parts of England were submerged soon put paid to those twin goals. Add in an approach to media appearances that always felt as if interviews could end up becoming somewhat combustible and it is easy to see how Cameron would have asked himself, 'will giving Paterson a prominent role help me win the next election?' and answered firmly in the negative.
In contrast, Greg Barker has received numerous plaudits from green campaigners and business leaders since it was confirmed last night that he was to step down. As with Paterson there is a case for a more balanced assessment of his record, particularly given the continued travails faced by the Green Deal scheme and the fact the government is now on the hook for a £132m compensation claim relating to unlawful changes to the feed-in tariff incentive. And yet, Barker's unrelenting optimism and fierce support for a green economic transition which he understands is both essential and entirely compatible with Conservatism won him deserved praise from across the business and NGO community. He was willing to make the case for ambitious action on climate change and highlight the merits of the green economy at a time when several of his colleagues were expressing barely concealed hostility towards both concepts. His resignation letter features a list of green achievements, from the introduction of the Green Investment Bank to the world's first Renewable Heat Incentive, that Barker can be rightly proud of.
Significantly, Barker remains good friends with the Prime Minister and it is to be hoped that he will fulfill his pledge to now work with Number 10 on the "formulation of an exciting and ambitious set of green policies to take to take to the country at the next General Election". And yet, this reshuffle feels like it could prove to be, if not the end of an era, then a late staging post on the road towards the end of the once ambitiously green, localist, Big Society Cameroonian vision.
It is too early to judge the new Conservative environment and energy ministers, but it is clear that if there are no natural successors to Paterson, there are no natural successors to Barker either - a fact only underlined by the bizarre decision to appoint Rudd as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Climate Change, rather than Minister for Climate Change, an admittedly minor change that still feels like a downgrading of climate change on the list of government priorities. Equally, the culling of moderates such as Ken Clarke, David Willetts, and - worst of all for the balance of climate warriors in cabinet - William Hague, suggests Lynton Crosby has called time on the modernisation project once and for all.
Truss, Hancock, and Rudd may yet earn their reputations for pragmatism by looking dispassionately at the climate risks the UK faces and concluding more ambitious action on decarbonisation is required. But it is notable so few of the new wave of Conservative up-and-comers have lobbied for a bolder position on climate change and green business issues in the way that Barker once did. As prospective London Mayoral candidate Michael Liebreich has demonstrated it is possible to be a radical Conservative voice while recognising the necessity and attractiveness of decarbonisation. It is surprising more of the 2010 in-take have not attempted to emulate his thinking.
Of course, the erstwhile driving force behind green Conservatism remains in Number 10 and as such I suspect the Party's manifesto will find a way to incorporate a number of positive environmental policies, not least because the complete ditching of the environmental agenda would leave Cameron open to justified accusations of hypocrisy. But at the same time, George Osborne and Lynton Crosby's influence over the party is more pronounced than ever, bringing with it at best a desire to push environmental issues down the political agenda and at worst a suspicion of the green economy.
Consequently, the battle between the green Conservatism embodied by Barker and the climate reckless, short termism defined by Paterson shows few signs of being resolved any time soon. If the departure of Paterson represents a victory for the Tory modernisers (and for all the Eurosceptic backbenchers lamenting his departure there are a fair few of his colleagues who will be absolutely delighted at his ignominious exit from government), the ongoing failure of the Prime Minister to publicly encourage the soon to be depleted green wing of his Party is a serious cause for concern. This encouragement is needed now more than ever, given that today saw the government's own independent advisers warn the UK is slipping off course in its attempts to decarbonise in the most cost-effective manner possible.
I hope I'm proved wrong, but until the Conservative Party leadership resolves some of its serious internal tensions over climate and environment issues it is hard to see how any reshuffle could deliver the more ambitious decarbonisation policies the green economy so urgently needs. The once clear narrative on green Conservatism is being squandered and it is ultimately up to the Prime Minister to restore it.
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