The Conservative Party does not find it easy being green. Though a few romantic Tory hearts may long for a Disraelian idyll of an unspoiled, eternal countryside, more recent times have seen the party blow both hot and cold over whether the planet is getting hot or staying cold, and what to do about it.
Consider four recent leaders. Margaret Thatcher was ahead of her time on climate change. David Cameron hugged huskies when visiting the Arctic. Theresa May introduced the Net Zero target which has formed a centrepiece of Boris Johnson’s premiership, most prominently at COP 26 last year.
But those same four also had their premierships propped up by North Sea Oil, scrapped subsidies for onshore wind farms, abolished the Department for Energy and Climate Change on entering Number 10, and subsidised their political career by revving Lamborghinis as fast as they could go. The Party has therefore not been so much afflicted by climate change denialism as climate change schizophrenia.
Nevertheless, it would be foolish to argue that the party’s environmentalist wing of isn’t currently in the ascendant. The Conservative Environment Network announced this week that it has 133 backbenchers signed up, more than a third of the Commons party and half of backbenchers.
Prominent recent recruits include recent Cabinet ministers Matt Hancock and Robert Jenrick, as well as Jeremy Hunt, the former Foreign Secretary, and Anna Frith, the new MP for Southend-on-Sea. Meanwhile, Chris Skidmore’s more specific Net Zero Support Group claims up to 30 members. It may have been 16 years since we were asked to “vote blue, go green”, but it seems Tory MPs are finally getting the message.
Or are they? Alongside the growing number of MPs willing to be seen as committed supporters of Net Zero and environmentalism, there also are a growing number who publicly suggest that pursuing decarbonisation by 2050 is the height of folly during an energy crisis.
Craig Mackinlay’s Net Zero Scrutiny Group has claimed around 58 members, though private conversations suggest “at least 100” MPs are sympathetic. Broadly, the group aims to have the government pause or reverse a policy it believes is economically and politically disastrous. Unsurprisingly, coverage of these splits has largely played up the potential for green issues to replace Brexit as a new dividing line separating hard-line sceptics from progressive modernisers.
Is that true? According to Skidmore, suggesting that the party is divided by this is a fantasy. Not only, as he told me, are there far more MPs supporting either the CEN or his group than Mackinlay’s, but the current energy crisis has made it more essential that the government delivers on its Net Zero agenda, not less.
Western attempts to sanction Putin have been hobbled by Europe’s dependence on Russian gas, so our national security relies on the energy security that going entirely renewable would provide. Moreover, with around two years until the next election, the Conservatives still require for a positive message for the electorate. Skidmore pointed me towards research by Onward suggesting that the Net Zero agenda can put meat on the bones of ‘levelling-up’, producing green jobs in the Red Wall that will keep those seats blue.
To say members of Net Zero Scrutiny Group were unimpressed by these arguments would be an understatement. They believe all this talk of a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ and ‘Net Zero Growth’ is ludicrous when considering looming stagflation and tripling energy bills. Whilst they do not deny that reducing our reliance on fossil fuels or cutting emissions are good ideas, they believe the current agenda is, in one’s phrasing, “pie in the sky”.
Do ministers and members of the Support Group realise the environmental impact of extracting the Zinc required for solar panels, or how small the UK’s battery capacity currently is ? Do they realise, as one told me, that we will need to carpet 75,000 acres of the country in solar farms to reach our current energy needs? They suspect not.
Instead, the Scrutiny Group want to focus on practical measures to reduce energy bills in the here and now. Primarily, that means backing fracking. They argue it would lower prices and provide just as much of an economic boost as any ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ – just look what the shale gas industry has done for the United States.
But the last manifesto announced a moratorium on the policy, not so much for environmental reasons, but because it was so unpopular in swathes of the North and Midlands. Since a few Net Zero Scrutiny Group supporters have constituencies in the South and East, their fondness for fracking raises an obvious question. Isn’t what they are doing the same as a Northern MP calling for HS2, or for more house-building near London? A few Scrutiny Group members sheepishly acknowledged this hypocrisy.
Nevertheless, the Net Zero Scrutiny Group do raise a valuable point: why, at a time when energy bills are tripling, are Conservatives so willing to sign up to an agenda that many suspect will only hike them further? According to Skidmore, there is no surprise: green policies only account for 8% of energy bills, and these policies will encourage the growth and innovation that will make costs cheaper in the long-term. And lower taxes, smaller government, motherhood, and apple pie will also soon follow in their wake.
But there is another reason why MPs are so keen to go green. One MP compared the hold of the CEN over the parliamentary party to the Sparrows from Game of Thrones – religious zealots whose commitment to their mission outweighs any practical considerations, and who keep the average MP in a state of servile terror. Or so I’m told, since I’m likely the only person working in politics not to have seen the popular breasts and dragons-based drama.
It has been noted that CEN and their supporters are very well-connected in Downing Street. Moreover, of the 2019 intake who have written for ConservativeHome about Net Zero over the last two years, one has then been made a PPS – Virgina Crosbie, the MP for Ynys Môn. Then again, another has defected to the Labour Party, so it’s not too useful a metric.
Notwithstanding that, Net Zero is clearly in fashion in Downing Street. Although the crisis in Ukraine may have provided an opportunity to look again at fracking and the North Sea, and to carve out an energy strategy that gives more of a role to nuclear than it would have done six months ago, there is a reason why the Net Zero Scrutiny Group’s membership includes serial rebels such as Steve Baker and Rob Halfon. Their counterparts in the Support Group may not be the stooges of the Whips that the Scrutin-eers claim (and which Skidmore vehemently denies), but they are not serials rebels, or likely to offend bien pensant opinion. In other words, no energy crisis can dampen the reflexive Tory instinct to climb the greasy pole. Disraeli would be proud.