Brexit, the Environment Bill, and the sun-scorched uplands

James Murray
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Brexit, the Environment Bill, and the sun-scorched uplands

Theresa May was at pains yesterday to stress the government will deliver high environmental standards post-Brexit - but the fear remains her welcome pledges could dissolve with her authority

To the Liaison Committee, and the scene Theresa May's fever dream subconscious torments her with in between repressed memories of those wheat fields and that exit poll. Arrayed before the Prime Minister are every single one of the chairs of Parliament's Select Committees and not one of them is in a forgiving mood. They are missing Boris Johnson's resignation speech for this, and they'll have to wait at least six months to the next one.

Luckily for May she had a big, hugely positive, and universally popular announcement to make. The problem is that what followed yesterday afternoon was the perfect distillation of the two competing sides of both Theresa May and the wider Conservative Party's engagement with environmental issues. It takes some doing to announce the first Environment Bill since 1995, repeatedly pledge to maintain high environmental standards, post-Brexit, and still leave observers nervous about the government's commitment to the environment, but somehow May managed it.

It had all started so well. Asked by Conservative MP and chair of the Environment Committee Neil Parish if the government would respond to the recommendations of the recent air quality 'super inquiry' and introduce a new Clean Air Act, May was thrilled to announce she wanted to be a "little more ambitious". "We will bring forward an Environment Bill and clean air will be part of that Environment Bill," she said. "There has not been an Environment Act since 1995, so we want to bring forward an Environment Bill that would incorporate a range of issues."

There was not a whole lot more detail beyond a vague assertion the bill would aim to address "some of the opportunities we think will be available to us when we leave the EU in terms of this area of protection of the environment" and a recognition it had to encourage a cross-department approach. But the announcement had landed. May looked relaxed and confident. The Number 10 social media team had its tweets primed and ready to go confirming "the government will bring forward the first Environment Bill in over 20 years". Green groups were quick to welcome a potentially landmark piece of legislation that promised to put the legislative flesh on the rhetorical bones of Michael Gove's Green Brexit vision.

If only May could have wrapped it up there. But unfortunately there was 20 minutes still to go.

Parish followed up with a question about how air quality measures are underfunded and why couldn't manufacturers of diesel cars "cough up"? May misunderstood the question. Not a willful misunderstanding of the question designed to cynically shut down a line of questioning she did not like, you understand. Just a common or garden failure to comprehend a simple question, which resulted in a vague assurance manufacturers were making some "voluntary contributions" to help improve air quality.

Thankfully Environmental Audit Committee Chair Mary Creagh was on hand to clarify. "We have all seen Volkswagen selling cars fitted with deliberate cheat devices, the US has fined them, Germany has fined them €1bn," she said. "Why haven't you done the same?"

No misunderstanding that. May's response? What could she say? She couldn't tell the truth - 'We haven't fined them because the entire auto industry is threatening to pack its bags and head to the continent so as to be as far away from Boris Johnson and his economy-wrecking Brexit exhortations as possible. I can't give them another reason to leave.'

Instead she defaulted to what the Guardian's John Crace has popularised as "the full Maybot". "Well, er, this is the, erm. If that was the question that Neil Parish was trying to get at I started to misunderstand the nature of the question he was coming at. I thought it was talking about a much wider use in relation to the interaction with the private sector and the contribution they might make in relation to, in relation to, any expenditure that local authorities needed to make." That's a verbatim quote. You'd like to think Donald Trump's incoherence was catching, but May has always responded like this to the straightest of questions.

An aide handed the Prime Minister a note. It didn't help.

Creagh, looking more than a little bemused, tried again. "Other countries have made the polluter pay, why haven't we?" she asked.

"No, we have looked at, there are a number of issues that have come up in relation to this question of emissions tests and what has come up with a number of manufacturers," came the answer. "The DfT are looking at this issue at the moment, they have been looking at various issues around emissions testing. Erm, we do consider vehicle owners should be compensated for the inconvenience, uncertainty, and the worry that was caused by Volkswagen's actions as well as for any loss in the value of any affected vehicles."

Creagh had had enough. It has been two years, she reminded the Prime Minister.

The Maybot insisted DfT officials were meeting regularly with VW executives - which may well have come as a surprise to all parties - before imploding fully in the hope some of the resulting shrapnel would stop Creagh asking questions. Say what you like about David Cameron, and you really should, at least he was able to order his thoughts sufficiently to respond to questions in vaguely transcribable sentences.

Sadly, the agony was not over. The next topic was post-Brexit environmental governance, and who was scheduled to ask the questions? Mary Creagh, MP. Again, there could be no room for misunderstanding, willful or otherwise. Creagh listed the environmental legal action the EU is currently pursuing against the UK, and asked if post-Brexit there will be a UK body that has the "power to take the government to court"?

An exasperated May could only stress the issue was being consulted on and reiterate the government was wedded to high standards.

The problem, as Creagh was swift to highlight, is the government may pledge to maintain high standards, but the legislation to introduce a new watchdog will not be brought forward until next year and the UK could leave the EU in March without a deal - what happens to environmental enforcement then?

May tried to deploy the death stare. Creagh kept breathing. May blustered on that the UK would not suddenly reduce standards and no deal preparations would put in place new measures where needed. Detail on those mooted measures - potentially to be introduced in just nine months' time, lest we forget - came there none.

The finishing line was finally within sight. But there was still time for May to undermine both that gleeful Environment Bill announcement that now seemed like a lifetime ago, and the repeated assurances the only living thing the Prime Minister would ever countenance damaging is a wheat field.

Having long ago concluded that direct questioning was the only type that matters, Creagh finished by deploying just 12 words to take a chainsaw to the Prime Minister's tree-hugging assurances: "There's going to be no common rulebook on environmental standards, why not?"

Again, what could the Prime Minister say? The truth? 'If I'd included anything more in the common rulebook even more of my Cabinet would have resigned and accused me of 'betraying the will of the people' or whatever irresponsibly incendiary rhetoric the papers had opted for that day'?

Instead she floundered some more about how the proposal was limited to goods as that was what was required to ensure frictionless free trade and that the government had been "very clear" how even outside a common rulebook it was determined to "maintain high environmental standards". And yet, in the middle of these countless assurances May had to acknowledge that for standards not covered by the common rulebook "there will be other areas where we are taking a different approach for the United Kingdom".

And therein lies the "mad riddle" May has yet to resolve.

The EU has precisely zero incentive to sign up to a trade deal that allows the UK to pursue a significantly "different approach" on environmental standards. The whole point of a common rulebook is to stop companies from different European states undercutting competitors by adopting lower standards that enable unfair competition and harm consumers, workers, or the environment. The EU may agree to a common rulebook for physical products, but why would it hand the UK government the freedom to relax the rules governing environmental impacts from the products' full lifecycle?

May's response would be yet more assurances the government would never dream of relaxing environmental standards. But what are those assurances really worth? At precisely the same time as May was announcing a new Environment Bill, her erstwhile Foreign Secretary was delivering his resignation speech in the Commons and making his thoughts on the value of environmental protection crystal clear. "We are volunteering for economic vassalage, not just in goods and agri-foods but we will be forced to match EU arrangements on the environment and social affairs and much else besides," Boris Johnson declared. "Of course we all want high standards but it is hard to see how the Conservative government of the 1980s could have done its vital supply side reforms with those freedoms taken away."

Leaving aside one of the critical components of Thatcher's 1980s reforms was the creation of the European Single Market, Johnson isn't even bothering with the dog whistle anymore - it's just a whistle, with an 'I heart pollution' sticker on it. Of course we all want high standards, he argues, except when we don't want them at all.

It is impossible to forget May's insistence a sweeping new Environment Bill will help lock in high standards and ensure the government will leave the environment in a better state than it found it, comes just days after she caved into the European Research Group of MPs and adopted amendments that threatened to torpedo her new Brexit strategy before it had even made it to the Eurostar. It is also impossible to forget that this group of Hard Brexit agitators largely redoubles as the parliamentary wing of Climate Sceptics Not So Anonymous. Just as it is impossible to forget the government this week defeated an amendment that would give Parliament the final say over new trade deals. May wants high standards, she just also wants the government to reserve the right to import some chlorinated chickens if it absolutely has to.

None of this is to detract from the welcome nature of a new Environment Bill. As commentators have been quick to note today it has the potential to be genuinely transformational. Its necessarily sweeping nature provides a huge opportunity to address many of the environmental challenges the UK faces and mobilise the countless effective environmental policy proposals that have been knocking around for years in search of a home. 

It could deliver on its primary goal of clarifying the UK's post-Brexit environmental governance landscape and providing legislative backing for the 25 Year Environment Plan's overarching ambitions. But it could also do a huge amount more besides. It could set binding targets for air quality, soil quality, water quality, and resource use, and instigate a CCC-style independent advisor to ensure they were met. It could finally overhaul national waste policy to streamline recycling systems and drive investment. It could reinforce Gove's proposals for agricultural subsidies that enhance environmental protection and create essential carbon sinks. It could rule out new coal mines in the UK and finally let onshore wind and solar farms compete for clean energy contracts. It could make energy efficiency a national infrastructure priority, on the grounds there is no good reason why it is not. It could immediately embrace Caroline Lucas' proposal for Natural History to be made a mandatory subject in our schools up to GCSE level. It could be introduced alongside a new Net Zero Emission Act. And that barely scratches the surface.

If May and Gove are serious about wanting to maintain high environmental standards, then this is the bare minimum for the new Environment Bill. And if the draft version fails to show this level of ambition then a government with a slim majority can surely expect MPs to work cross-party on this most cross-party of issues and string the bill up like an amendment Christmas tree.

Such amendments would serve to highlight Tory divisions on the environment even more effectively than May's Liaison Committee appearance. Because the stark reality is that while May and Gove recognise that the green economic opportunity and escalating environmental crisis make the first Environment Act in 20 years an absolutely critical component of their efforts to set out a post-Brexit narrative for the UK, the wing of the party that is committed to making May's life even more miserable than an hour being quizzed by Select Committee Chairs regards any and all forms of environmental policy as Commie-loving anathema.

They continue to wage their guerrilla war against the Prime Minister under the tired assumption the only way to reach the Brexit sunlit uplands is by tearing down environmental protections wherever they can be found. If Boris gets his way they'll be no sunlit uplands, only sun scorched uplands - periodically bursting into flames. But the Prime Minister has neither the nerve nor the authority to tell them they are steering the country towards environmental and economic crisis. Something has to give.

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