In praise of Theresa May - no, really

James Murray
In praise of Theresa May - no, really

The Prime Minister has enough flaws to be a genuine contender for the title of worst in modern history, but in one crucial area she got some big calls right

Theresa May has not been that bad a Prime Minister. In fact, in some important respects she has actually been quite good.

I mean, she's also been utterly terrible, obviously. A true take on all comers world beater in the Prime Ministerial WOAT - worst of all time - Grand Final (semi-final line up: North, Cameron, Chamberlain, May). A charisma-free populist. A bizarre mix of unrelenting stubbornness and bend with the wind cowardice. A career politician who can neither campaign nor communicate. A supremely undiplomatic, party before country political tribalist whose preternatural resilience only served to provide more opportunities for her to demonstrate quite how divisive and out of her depth she had become.

The Prime Minister has taken one of the world's premier diplomatic forces and eviscerated its reputation in the face of its closest allies. She has taken a modern, world-leading, wealthy economy and engineered a position where it does not know what its trading arrangements will be in less than a month's time. It is a national humiliation, and it is ultimately on May.

Even her confirmation she will resign if her unloved Brexit deal can somehow cobble together a majority has only served to highlight her many weaknesses, torching any remaining vestiges of goodwill within both Brussels and the DUP by raising the prospect of them being forced to negotiate with successors who appear more than a little indifferent to economic logic, diplomatic niceties, and the unique challenges faced by Northern Ireland. If her putative resignation is really contingent on Brexit being secured then it could yet be many more months away, indeed it may never come.

However, for all the Prime Minister's myriad flaws in the hugely important area of the environment and the green economy May has been, not impressive exactly, but consistently right and even at times quietly effective.

It is now highly unlikely she will be in office long enough to secure anything as grand as a green legacy and it is almost certain the history books will remember her for the unpleasantly divisive rhetoric, the bungling of the Brexit, and the ideological implosion of the Conservative Party. But May's environmental record is still worthy of consideration.

She declared unequivocally that "tackling climate change and mitigating its effects for the world's poorest are among the most critical challenges that we face". She ratified the Paris Agreement and told President Trump that climate change "does not respect borders". She may have scrapped the Department for Energy and Climate Change, but she ensured that the green economy and clean growth was core to the industrial strategy developed at the new Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy.

Speaking at the launch of the 25 Year Environment Plan last year she even sketched out something approaching a philosophy. "It is sometimes suggested that a belief in a free market economy which pursues the objective of economic growth is not compatible with taking the action necessary to protect and enhance our natural environment," she said. "That we need to give up on the very idea of economic growth itself as the price we have to pay for sustainability. Others argue that taking any action to protect and improve our environment harms business and holds back growth. Both are wrong. They present a false choice which I entirely reject."

And if that sounds a little too close to unthinking 'the market and innovation will save us' Conservative cliché, she quickly added that government also had a critical role to play. "Of course, for a market to function properly it has to be regulated," she said. "And environmental protection is a vital part of any good regulatory regime. So where government needs to intervene to ensure that high standards are met, we will not hesitate to do so."

May failed to move swiftly enough to replace the raft of climate policies that were axed or watered down in the dog days of the Cameron administration and didn't do nearly enough to demonstrate that she really was willing to regulate to tackle environmental crises. But in the past 18 months a framework for a new phase of UK green economic development has taken shape. The Clean Growth Strategy and the 25 Year Plan for the Environment may have both been too light on detail and funding, but each provided a clear narrative: that the UK could prosper economically while cutting carbon emissions and that we should leave the environment in a better state than we found it for the next generation.

From those twin assumptions has flown significant funding for electric vehicle infrastructure and energy storage R&D; an evolving vision for a UK smart grid; new, if still early stage, plans to improve business energy efficiency; the construction of the first new nuclear power plant in a generation; a fleet of giant new offshore wind farms; co-ordinated Sector Deals for key green industries; a raft of new regulations and initiatives to tackle plastic waste; an international coal phase out plan; a bid to host the critical COP26 UN climate summit; the greenest Treasury statement in years, including the promise of a major new review on the economic value of nature and beefed up green standards for new homes; the first draft Environment Bill in 25 years; a potentially transformational plan to reform agricultural subsidies to benefit the environment; a repeated pledge to maintain and strengthen environmental protections post-Brexit, including clear commitments in the Withdrawal Agreement; and, perhaps most important of all, an official review of whether to set a net zero emission target that everyone knows is only going to come back with one answer.

It is a genuinely solid track record that should lay some of the foundations for genuinely transformational investments and technological progress throughout the 2020s. Many of the above policies and initiatives may have been driven by others, but May signed off on them and gave the likes of Michael Gove and Claire Perry the space to develop the outline for this new framework.

The Prime Minister may have been aided by the fact that the climate sceptic wing of the Conservative Party has been distracted by Brexit and we'll never know what would have happened had her former advisor and Climate Change Act critic Nick Timothy had remained in post, but May never gave serious succour to those in her party who seek to block climate action. She even cooled the government's previous enthusiasm for fracking, nominally supporting it, but without the cheerleading approach of Cameron and Osborne and with tough tremor regulations that look set to stymie development. Judging by her track record in other areas she may well have caved in to the slightest pressure had the UK's small band of climate sceptics been able to engineer a few hostile Daily Mail front pages, but thankfully May's commitment to environmental action remained remarkably robust even as she flip-flopped and dissembled on countless other issues.

The problem for May is that the encouraging parts of her green record are offset by three fundamental and inter-related problems with her approach to environmental challenges and the green economy.

Firstly, May has been better than expected, but nowhere near as good as hoped. Like all Prime Ministers before her the response of her government to climate change has been nowhere near commensurate to the scale of the challenge. She may have been broadly supportive of the green economy, but she has done next to nothing to challenge the fossil fuel incumbency, continuing to freeze fuel duty and throw tax breaks at the oil majors. She U-turned on previous personal opposition and backed Heathrow expansion, never once engaging with the environmental implications and the urgent need for a sustainable aviation plan.

The government may have sought to harness the Blue Planet effect with new policies on plastic waste, but faced with the School Strikes and the buzz around a Green New Deal in recent months the response from Downing Street was characteristically tin-eared. May could do pragmatic incremental change, she looked all at sea when asked to consider radical transformation, and we are in an age where climate hawk radicalism is urgently required.

There was a perfect example of the Prime Minister's failure to truly grasp the level of leadership the climate crisis requires earlier yesterday, just before May confirmed that she was willing to resign. Taken to task by Caroline Lucas at PMQs for the government's continuing failure to develop a decarbonisation strategy in line with the UK's targets, May did not acknowledge the climate emergency we all face and accept the need to do more before talking of the welcome progress that was being made. Instead she chastised Lucas for being so negative and urged everyone to celebrate the progress the UK has made at cutting emissions. The complacency was all too evident. To use an analogy the cricket-loving Prime Minister would understand, this is akin to asking everyone to applaud a boundary when you are eight wickets down and 250 runs behind. It is a nice achievement and it may be worthy of applause, but in the wider context of the game you are still in a world of trouble.

Secondly, May was swamped by Brexit. Even with a reasonable track record to talk about and polling showing the public want more action on the environment May rarely raised the issue, making it even easier for Corbyn's Labour to try and 'own' the topic. The potential to turn the Clean Growth Strategy and the imminent net zero review into a genuinely transformational national project was never realised, largely for a lack of politically astute and charismatic leadership.

More specifically, the government's Brexit plans may have promised a Green Brexit, but as soon as you looked at the detail the same poison pills that have so badly undermined May's wider deal were evident throughout. At every turn the promise of strong environmental protection and ambition post-Brexit was diluted by loopholes and caveats that were purposefully designed to keep the deregulation-enthralled, US trade deal-obsessed right of the party happy. Faced with irreconcilable choices, May attempted to triangulate and ended up with a Frankenstein deal that will only serve to make the UK poorer and less secure. She tried to please the hard right of her party and ended up alienating everyone.

It is that same increasingly extreme political tribe that has destroyed May's premiership and has been at the heart of her third major green flaw: an unrelenting effort to appease the unappeasable, to put the dangled prospect of chlorinated chickens or weakened green regulations above the environmental and economic needs of the country - needs that could have been met though a more conciliatory willingness to work across the aisle in pursuit of a Brexit deal that could honour the referendum and command broad support in parliament and the country.

Instead May buckled to the ERG at every turn and her reward looks set to be resignation and the sight of her tormentors enjoying a run at the top job. You could feel sorry for her, but she has brought it all on herself.

On the environment May has been far from perfect, but she has not been that bad. The problem is that the climate crisis is now so grave that 'not bad' is only a marginal improvement on 'utterly terrible'. The green economic progress that has been made on May's watch has been important and welcome. But ultimately she has failed. Failed to establish climate change as an emergency, failed to turbocharge the green economy and deliver the full spectrum policy action and bold leadership that is urgently required, failed to deliver a vision of national renewal that could reach beyond Brexit, and failed to defeat those in her party who are either studiously indifferent or actively hostile to the idea of a sustainable, clean, and healthy economy. It is this last failure that could come into focus in the coming months, on the depressing grounds that whoever comes next could be a whole lot worse.  

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