The Prime Minister glossed over environmental issues in a speech that was designed to focus on traditional Tory strengths, but where does that leave the Conservative's confusing climate policies
There was a huge amount for political analysts to comment on in David Cameron's barn-storming conference speech: the promise of tax cuts and the mystery of how they will be paid for; the vague vow to tackle free movement of people within the EU; the passionate and tearful defence of his commitment to the NHS; the laser-guided attacks on Ed Miliband's character and credibility. But there was next to nothing on the issue Cameron last week described as "one of the most serious threats facing our world": climate change.
There was one throw-away line, when he declared towards the end of the speech that the UK was "leading, not following, on climate change". But a week on from his commitment to drive more climate action and a year on from the political row over energy bills there was nothing on flooding, nothing on fracking, nothing on renewables, and nothing on nuclear.
Still, we like a challenge at BusinessGreen, and it is just about possible to analyse a rhetorical absence, so here goes.
The first thing to say is that conference speeches do matter. They may be ignored by most people, they may rarely, if ever, swing elections, and they may have little to do with the day-to-day business of governing. But they are the closest thing we have in the UK to a State of the Union address and as such they give the main political leaders a chance to set out their priorities and vision in a way they are rarely afforded.
Within that context there are two ways to interpret Cameron's glossing over of climate, environmental and energy issues, neither of which are great for the green economy, but one of which is much better than the other.
The first is the knee-jerk condemnation that the green NGOs are this afternoon indulging in. "How can the Prime Minister highlight climate risks one week and ignore them the next," they cry. "How can he ditch green building standards as soon as he thinks it may buy him a few votes," they lament. "How can we take seriously a man who wilfully ignores an issue that once defined his political character," they ask. The charge being laid at Cameron's door is one of political hypocrisy and no little cowardice - the green groups' outrage is understandable, if predictable. They feel they have been betrayed by a Prime Minister who promised a new kind of environmental action, and they have plenty of evidence to feed their grievances.
Alongside these NGO attacks come serious questions from green business leaders about those issues Cameron did see fit to address. What will be cut to pay for tax cuts that look distinctly uncosted? How will you keep increasing flood defences and support emerging clean technologies while cutting taxes, cutting the deficit and ring-fencing the NHS? How are offshore wind and nuclear developers expected to cope if the required skills aren't available in the UK and free movement of workers in the EU is restricted?
All of these questions are justified and it is concerning that the Prime Minister does not currently appear to have an answer to any of them. More damaging still for the green economy is the sense of priorities that Cameron has allowed to develop. If you say that you want to prioritise climate action, you actually have to prioritise climate action, not signal that it is way down the list of things you want to do with a second term.
The more nuanced and generous way of interpreting the speech is that Cameron still cares - some would say cares deeply - about climate change and the green economy, but he has an election to win and a party to keep in line so now is not the time to admit it remains a priority.
The fingerprints of Tory election strategist Lynton Crosby were all over Cameron's speech, providing an oratorical embodiment of his reported instruction to "get the barnacles off the boat" - itself a reference to the West Wing episode where President Bartlett's election guru implores him to stick exclusively to vote-winning issues. Consequently, the focus was on tax cuts and leadership credibility, not energy efficiency and climate risks.
Cameron signalled with his speech on climate change last week and his brief mention of it today that the environment is still part of his political identity. It is just that he knows it is not a vote winner for the Conservatives and could end up being a vote loser, so he hopes the issue goes away until after polling day. In this respect, he will be delighted that his backbenchers managed to not make a massive fuss about climate science and wind turbines this week, just as he will have been delighted that Labour attacks on his failing energy efficiency policies and contradictory championing of both oil and gas exploration and climate action are yet to cut through. He will also hope that green business leaders will be won over by the promise of low corporate tax rates and the Tories' ‘long term economic plan', while accepting his whispered assurances that a Conservative government would focus on continued decarbonisation.
There is some good news to be had for green businesses in this interpretation of the speech. The climate sceptic awkward squad were notably quiet in Birmingham, suggesting Cameron may yet be able to pull off his softly-softly approach to green growth. Equally, the all of the above energy and transport strategy George Osborne is pursuing does leave some room for renewables, nuclear power, and rail, even if it also allows for fracking and runways. It is a bit depressing when not getting publicly attacked represents a victory for the green economy, but that is the current state of right wing politics on the environment.
However, while Cameron's approach is politically understandable, it presents a serious challenge for the green economy and, as with his promised tax cuts, it requires a huge amount of trust to be invested in a Prime Minister who has offered more 180 degree turns than an episode of Strictly Come Dancing.
As I argued earlier this week, the main problem created by Cameron's climate silence is that it has resulted in a confused policy where the Conservative's climate strategy should sit. Unless some serious thinking is underway behind the scenes the Conservative Party is currently on track to go into an election with a mix of contradictory energy and environment policies that fall well short of the bar set by Cameron when he says the UK will "lead" on climate action. As the Guardian's Damian Carrington argued today, there was scant evidence in Birmingham that this thinking is taking place.
Yes, green businesses may benefit from the policy stability that comes with the suggestion that the Conservatives would largely continue with the low carbon policies that are already in place - electricity market reform, the Green Deal, support for electric car, etc. But a number of these policies are in serious trouble already and the unrelenting nature of the climate change challenge means that resting on laurels is not an option. Even if power sector decarbonisation policies work, and that is a big if, what of green transport strategy, green industrial strategy, green technology strategy?
The other big problem is that presented by the party Cameron will one day - potentially one day soon - leave behind. The decision to quit fighting the climate reckless elements of his party and the failure to build a coherent Conservative climate strategy has only served to embolden those who would happily tear up the Climate Change Act and join the coal industry in celebrating. The net result is that those jostling to replace Cameron either have very little to say on climate change or appear actively hostile to climate action. Regardless of what happens at the next election, there is now a huge amount of political and policy risk that green investors have to factor into their decisions.
Over the next six months David Cameron will make much of his leadership skills, and there is no doubt that today's speech was a shining example of his political clout. But genuinely strong leaders find a way to prioritise the issues they care most about, they find a way to deliver hard truths, and most of all, they have a compelling and coherent strategy that people are willing to follow. On climate change, the green economy, and the wider environment, Cameron's leadership is starting to look distinctly lacking.
Cameron did not forget the green bit of his speech; for political reasons it was never going to appear - and that silence speaks volumes.
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