Gavin Rice: The Conservative campaign in Hartlepool kicks off today. But will Johnson deliver for his new working class voters?

29 Mar

Gavin Rice is Head of the Work and Welfare Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice.

All eyes are now on Hartlepool, with the first by-election poll showing Labour’s lead down to just three per cent.  The Conservative campaign opens today: whether the party can flip the seat, which hasn’t voted for a Tory candidate in six decades, is being viewed widely as a litmus test for the strength and permanence of the party’s 2019 incursion into the North East and West.

There is a lot to live up to. After thousands of voters overcame multi-generational hatred for the Tories to “lend” Boris Johnson their vote, the Prime Minister made a solemn commitment to govern in their interests, saying: “I will repay your trust”.

It’s now imperative that the Conservatives do repay it, and are seen to do so. This will involve giving priority to concrete remedies to the poverty that for many Red Wall voters has become a fact of life.

The Centre for Social Justice has compiled a list of 205 deprived towns, using the Index of Multiple Deprivation, as an indicator of Britain’s communities most in need of “levelling up”. We have also mapped them electorally by parliamentary constituency.

The results are revealing. No fewer than 38 of the constituencies containing deprived towns are 2019 Conservative gains – all in the Midlands, North East and North West. All of them are marginal, meaning the government’s stake in making a real difference in these places is electoral as well as moral.

Many more are narrow Labour holds such as Hartlepool, again in the Red Wall. It’s generally accepted the Conservatives have long-term problems in London, the cities, spa towns and middle-class suburbia. They will need more working-class seats in former Labour territory to offset these losses. There are positive signs, with the party taking a 25-point lead among working-class voters, but also policy choices that are much more concerning.

The recent decision by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to “call in” the planning application to open a coalmine at Whitehaven in Copeland constituency is astonishing if it indicates where the Tories’ hearts lie.

Such decisions are normally made by the local authority, and the Secretary of State, Robert Jenrick, initially pledged not to intervene. He later U-turned, however, taking the decision out of Copeland County Council’s hands and returning it to central government. After an outcry from the likes of Greenpeace, the project has been earmarked for a public inquiry and kicked into the long grass.

The decision – taken in reality, no doubt, by Number Ten – looks shamelessly political, prioritising green optics over Northern livelihoods – the very opposite of what Johnson should be doing. But clearly 500 or more well-paid jobs in Whitehaven cannot compete with the fact that Britain is hosting COP26 in November, when a brand new coalmine (the first in 30 years) could present plenty of opportunities for media embarrassment. The decision also came – rather suspiciously – three days after the visit to the UK of John Kerry, the US’s replacement for Al Gore as chief climate guru.

Refusing to open a commercially viable new mine seems extremely ham-fisted, given the lost opportunity and disappointment this will cause to exactly the constituents the Conservatives need to be defending – and, yes, Whitehaven is one of CSJ’s “205”. Not so long ago the party was pursuing an explicit Cumbria strategy; the Whitehaven decision seems a long way from there.

Given what could be at stake, there has been no regard for trade-offs. Mark Jenkinson, the MP for Workington (another former mining constituency), has argued that producing coking coal domestically could even cut emissions by eliminating the need to ship to Britain from around the world, meaning the carbon footprint – if any – would be minimal. In contrast, the local and symbolic impact of saying “No” to Whitehaven is enormous.

The Conservatives do not enjoy a good legacy in the North when it comes to closing mines. The way the closure of the pits was handled, and the tragic social aftermath in which two generations were consigned to unemployment, has left a lasting scar. Even John Major has admitted that the party “got it wrong”. But at least Thatcher’s closures were motivated by economic reality. This time it’s about displaying green credentials for perceived political gain.

Whether this is in fact a political gain should be reconsidered, fast. The Red Wall absolutely cannot be taken for granted: a 2020 Channel 4 poll of voters in 45 Red Wall seats found that 16 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters didn’t know which way they would vote now, with seven per cent saying they will definitely go back to Labour. Indeed, Labour took a Red Wall poll lead in December. Given how marginal these seats are, these are numbers that should cause unease in CCHQ.

Painting a picture of local stagnation George Bell, a veteran of the National Union of Mineworkers, said that in Worksop, which switched to the Tories for the first time since 1929: “a lot of [the work] is low-paid, non-unionised work…the electricians, brick works, timber yards and other industries that used to service the mines are all long gone”.

These are the communities the Conservatives need to win and hold. Their top 20 targets for 2024 are almost all in the Red Wall. These include Wansbeck, Hemsworth, Normanton Pontefract and Castleford, Chesterfield (Tony Benn’s former constituency), and Oldham East and Saddleworth. In each of these the Conservatives only need a small swing. Every one is in or near former mining country.

The Government must accept that chasing a green-only economic agenda at breakneck speed is a policy that sits in clear tension with the solemn commitment to regenerate Britain’s post-industrial regions. Net zero and levelling up are competing objectives. This is a contradiction within the party’s thinking, and the sooner there is honesty about it, the better.

Unfortunately, this policy clash speaks to a deeper cultural divide within the party between Cameroons and the new Boris consensus. David Cameron did incredible things for the party, making it electable again after 13 wilderness years. But his electoral strategy – chasing middle-class votes, parading environmentalist credentials (“Vote Blue, Go Green”), and taking the fight to the Liberal Democrats in England’s leafy suburbs, ultimately resulted in Coalition. In 2015 he pulled off a majority, but one much smaller than Johnson did when the Red Wall fell.

Cameron’s autobiography, “For the Record”, makes plain that the former leader remains convinced of the merits of what he calls the “centre ground”, with social liberalism and climate change its core priorities. This Westminster centre – as research shows – is in fact not the centre ground of British voters at all.

Whitehaven may seem like a local issue, and indeed it should have been. Whitehall’s intervention has made this a national question, revealing a deeper existential conflict within the Conservative Party. Is it the party of bourgeois ideological preoccupations, or of British workers? Were our former mining communities right to place their trust in the party? A good signal of the true answer to this lies in whether they open this mine. Let’s hope Johnson doesn’t let his new voters down.

David Jones: Vaping – a quick win for Brexit

23 Mar

David Jones is a former Welsh Secretary and is MP for Clwyd West.

It isn’t just the headline-grabbing freedoms that make our departure from the European Union the best outcome for this country; it’s about the small print, too. Now Brexit is complete, we can reassess our current legislation that originates from transposed EU Directives.

The Department of Health and Social Care is currently reviewing the regulations that imposed the EU’s Tobacco Products Directive into UK law and is, we are told, producing a new Tobacco Control Plan this summer.

I am using my Westminster Hall debate today to urge the Public Health Minister to take back control of our tobacco harm reduction policies. When the health of the nation has never been a more important issue, we must use this opportunity Brexit has provided. We must make sure these policies are grounded in science and give the seven million smokers in the UK the best possible chance at moving away from cigarettes for good.

While smoking rates have fallen in recent years, the problem is still real, and we must remember the inequalities behind these numbers. Harm from smoking falls disproportionately on the most vulnerable in society. So now is the time to act, and I am asking three things of the Minister today. And to reassure colleagues and readers, these actions have zero cost to the taxpayer.

First, it goes without saying that smoking kills. But we must accept that the fundamental problem with smoking is the smoke – the combustion. This needs to be at the forefront of our evidence-based policy making and should remain the core principle through which we regulate.

While we should maintain strong barriers to combustible tobacco – whether through the role of proportionate taxation or maintaining secure borders to prevent supply from smugglers – we should also embrace the role of non-combustible alternatives for those smokers who can’t quit.

So, secondly, I am calling on the Minister to introduce a new reduced-risk smoking products category to provide a robust regulatory framework that can cover – in a consistent manner – all the products we have on the market now, and indeed could have now we have left the EU.

E-cigarettes have made a great impact in the UK; however, many smokers have tried them but have stopped using them, so we should look at whether the nicotine level set by the EU is one that is enough to ensure that smokers stay switched.

Nicotine pouches have had a promising start in the UK, but we must make sure they are sensibly regulated to avoid purchase by minors and non smokers.

Snus has been banned by the EU, but has had a great impact on smoking levels in Sweden, where they managed an exception, so we should also legalise it now we can. And heated tobacco, which has high success rates at getting smokers off cigarettes, is sadly held back because, under transposed EU law, smokers aren’t allowed to hear about it.

Indeed, all these alternatives won’t be effective unless smokers know about them, and the misinformation around them is addressed.

So, thirdly, I am asking the Minister to introduce measures to get accurate information about alternatives directly to smokers – whether that’s inside cigarette packets, targeted at them online, or by allowing shopkeepers to speak to them about all of the options available.

And when we have such bold and innovative policies at home, why not be proud to defend them robustly abroad?

An important and beneficial consequence of leaving the EU is that we no longer have to align to the views of the EU group when it comes to multilateral gatherings. It is no surprise the weight of the Government machine has been activated for our hosting of COP26 – the climate change conference – later this year.

But the Government should also have a clear strategy on the role our newly independent voice can have at other Conference of Parties meetings that the World Health Organisation organises.

For the little-known COP9 concerning tobacco control – also in November this year – I am urging the Minister to challenge the WHO, because it is a body that has taken positions that run completely counter to UK policy. It wants to ban e-cigarettes – and seems simply not to understand the concept of tobacco harm reduction.

There is much the world can learn from our approach. Put simply: policy divergence from the EU on vaping and smokefree products is a quick win for Brexit that will improve public health, level up the nation and firmly establish the UK as the world leader in tobacco harm reduction.

Neil Hudson: We have every reason to feel excited about the Government’s ambitious Turing scheme

12 Mar

Dr Neil Hudson is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Penrith and The Border. Neil is a veterinary surgeon and is a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and Fellow of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.

As an MP who has worked as a university senior lecturer, I don’t mind admitting that I was a disappointed when I first heard that the UK would not be taking part in Erasmus+. Although the scheme wasn’t perfect, it still was an amazing opportunity for our students. I’d seen first-hand how it could create opportunities which broadened their horizons – and I worried about our ability to create a domestic alternative that would truly match its ambition.

The importance of students being able to exchange experiences in different institutions is a win-win for them and academics. I know from personal experience that when your students are placed in international institutions and vice versa this is a great way of fostering teaching and research collaborations in both places. In the midst of a global pandemic, it was too easy to see that this could have been deprioritised.

The reality is that international partnerships have never been more important to universities. International students – essential not just for the diversity of outlook they bring to campus, but for the financial contribution they make – have proved unexpectedly loyal during Covid-19, averting vice-chancellors’ worst-case scenarios.

But it cannot be taken for granted that this will continue, especially as Asian universities rise up the world rankings and the US seeks to once again become a more welcoming studying destination. Academic conferences, a staple of building international networks, have looked very different over the last year, with fewer opportunities to forge the personal connections on which partnerships are made.

For universities, this can be particularly challenging. An international outlook is part of their core ethos. From Covid-19 to climate change, it is increasingly clear that the problems facing our world require international solutions. And as a former university academic and admissions dean, I know first-hand that opportunities to meet people from other cultures and to travel abroad are seen as highly important by students when deciding where to study, or in inspiring them to reach their full potential.

It’s for this reason that I’m delighted that the Government has moved so quickly to set up the Turing scheme. It is a genuinely ambitious offer that has been described by Universities UK – no lovers of Brexit – as “a fantastic development”. And in some areas, I am relieved to say it is even better than Erasmus+ was.

Some of the criticisms that have been thrown at the scheme can only be described as inaccurate, misrepresentations of the facts by those not wanting to give something new and ambitious a chance. The monthly cost of living allowance for both schemes is comparable: 370-420 Euro for a typical student under Erasmus+ compared to 390 – 443 Euro (£335-380) for Turing, with similar uplifts for disadvantaged students.

Importantly, under Erasmus+, only those who went to non-EU countries – three per cent of UK participants – received support for travel, whereas in Turing, all disadvantaged students will receive travel support – not just for flights, but for visas, passports and travel insurance – wherever they are going in the world. The suggestion that Turing participants will have to pay tuition fees is also incorrect: mutual fee waivers will be negotiated by each university partnership, as is absolutely standard for HE exchange schemes around the world. This argument also underlies the flawed thinking that the UK should pay for both inward and outward mobilities: an exchange is a partnership, to which both sides contribute, just as all country participants in Erasmus+ paid towards its costs.

There are some ways in which the schemes are different. The most disappointing for me personally is that Turing only includes students, not academics or teachers. I know colleagues in HE who will feel this painfully. But equally, I recognise that academics have many other opportunities to travel abroad and, as a Conservative MP committed to the levelling-up agenda, I recognise that we should focus taxpayers’ money on creating opportunities for those who otherwise would not have them, not supporting those who could access support another way.

And set against this are the tremendous advantages of Turing. Most obviously, there is the ability to travel anywhere in the world, not just Europe. European countries will always be our friends and partners, but this scheme will open up new opportunities in Europe, North America, Asia and Australia to name but a few. Providing the opportunity to study at the Ivy League, Singapore, Japan, or to forge partnerships, friendships and collaborations with our Commonwealth allies, is something our students will grasp with both hands.

Less talked about, but also important, is the greater flexibility that Turing offers in terms of the length and format of exchanges. The typical average six-month duration of Erasmus+ exchanges meant that the scheme was dominated by certain subject areas such as languages.

To take my own subject, veterinary medicine, it is difficult in a professional degree to spend a whole year abroad – but far more feasible to go for an eight-week study or clinical work placement. Although year-long exchanges will still be available, the greater flexibility and increased choice of destinations will open up demand to a much wider variety of students from different disciplines, which can only be a good thing.

In short, from an initial position of scepticism, I have found Turing to be an unexpected bonus. It is another example, like the fantastic trade deals we have signed, our hosting of COP26 this year or the ambitious relaunch of our

international education strategy, of how for this Government “Global Britain” isn’t just a slogan, it’s a strategy. And it’s one which I know our world-class universities and ambitious students will embrace.

Stanley Johnson: Why we need a clear domestic target to restore nature by 2030

1 Mar

Stanley Johnson is an environmentalist, author, former Conservative MEP and parliamentary candidate.  His new novel, The Warming, will be published next year.

Today, the Chief Executieves of more than fifty environmental non-governmental organisations have written to the Prime Minister, thanking him for his “personal efforts to put the UK at the forefront of international work to mend our broken relationship with nature”,

They refer, in particular, to the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature, supported by the Prime Minister, and now signed by Leaders of 84 countries and the European Union, which proudly boasts in a banner headline that they – the leaders – are “united to reverse biodiversity loss by 2030 for sustainable development”.

They insist that, to achieve that aim, the Leaders’ Pledge must be a “precursor for a strong international deal” at the 15th Conference of Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 15) which is due to place later this year in Kunming, China.

Owing to the disruptions caused by the pandemic, the Kunming meeting – planned for May – is likely to be delayed again, and a new date has yet to be fixed. That is a matter for China, as the host of COP 15, to decide.

But one thing is certain. The Kunming Conference is likely to be as significant for the world’s biodiversity as the 26th meeting of the UN’s Climate Change Conference (COP 26), which will take place in Glasgow in November this year with Alok Sharma presiding, will be for the world’s climate.

Indeed, the two issues are inextricably linked. Quite apart from the fundamental importance of nature and natural resources for the health and wealth of nations, ‘nature-based solutions’ will play a major role in the fight against global warming. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, for example, probably the most respected international body in the field of nature conservation, has recently stated  that “each country should maximize the contribution of nature-based solutions; ramping up nature conservation is critical for solving the climate emergency: nature-based climate solutions have the potential to provide up to 37 per cent of the climate change mitigation needed by 2030 to stabilize warming to below 2°C.”

In today’s letter to the Prime Minister, the NGO chiefs go on to say: “though the UK is uniquely placed to secure a global agreement and can show real leadership by setting an example domestically, more decisive action is needed here in the UK to ensure we realise this rare opportunity”.

They point specifically to the Environment Bill, and the opportunities it may provide if some simple changes are made to the text currently before Parliament. They hope, in particular, to ensure that the Bill includes a clear domestic target to restore nature by 2030.

They point out that though, under the current draft, the Secretary of State has the power to set biodiversity targets – and indeed an obligation to do so – the Government would not in fact be allowed to set new 2030 targets in law since Clause 1 (6) of the Bill provides that any target date must be “no less than 15 years after the date on which the target is initially set”.

“This mismatch in urgency and timescales means that it would not be possible to set a 2030 target to halt nature’s decline, and that important actions to deliver it, such as your own commitment to protect and manage 30 per cent of land and seas for nature by 2030, cannot be placed in law under the Environment Bill framework.”

The NGO leaders are much impressed by the impact on policy of the 2008 Climate Change Act, and the legally binding targets established under its terms for greenhouse gas reductions. They believe that the same approach can be adopted for nature protection: “just as the UK led the way in creating the world’s first Climate Change Act, so we can be the first country to set ambitious targets in law for the recovery of the natural world.”

But it is not only a question of protecting and restoring our own wildlife, our wild areas and landscapes, and much-threatened biodiversit -, whether terrestrial or marine. The Environment Bill, with a key legally binding biodiversity target to halt and begin to restore the loss of biodiversity enshrined in the primary legislation, could be a template for other countries ahead of COP15. It might even help to strengthen their resolve to achieve a truly ambitious global biodiversity deal at Kunming.

So I much hope that the fifty-plus NGO leaders who wrote to the Prime Minister today, and the nation-wide petition which they are launching, do indeed succeed in their aim of persuading the government to include, as of now, a “State of Nature Target” clause in the Environment Bill.

George Eustice, Rebecca Pow and their team have done a tremendous job in getting this once-in-a generation environmental legislation as far as they have under tremendously difficult circumstances. Now is the time to go that extra mile.

And I also hope that China, with its own superb mountains, rivers, forests, deserts, coasts and wildlife, is able to seize the spectacular opportunity that hosting COP 15 presents. We have continued to destroy our natural world as if there were no tomorrow. To give just one example: according to WWF’s Living Planet Index, world-wide population sizes of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles have seen an alarming average drop of 68 per cent since 1970. We have been trashing nature and wildlife for much too long. Now is the time to stop.

Philip Mitchell and Chris Goddard: 2020 was a reality check on China. Trade offers opportunities for the UK to assert its values.

15 Feb

Chris Goddard and Philip Mitchell are both members of Lewes Conservative Political Forum.

2020 provided a reality check in relation to China: no longer was it enough to promise, as the Cameron and May administrations had done, that Britain was “open for business” and that unpleasant features of Chinese nationalism could be overlooked because of trade. The scaling back of Huawei technology by Johnson provided a foretaste of a harder-edged response to growing Chinese influence throughout the world coupled with a realisation that, while trade normalises relations, it does not cure aggression or safeguard human rights.

Three events in particular have bought that reality into sharp focus. First, the introduction of the Hong Kong security law as an excuse to snuff out the remnants of democracy in that beleaguered territory has made plain that China regards any interference in its “internal affairs” as illegitimate and indeed worthy of denunciation – so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy”.

Second, as Nus Ghani has recently pointed out in these pages, there is increasing evidence that China has committed genocide and crimes against humanity in its repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, prompting the US already to take punitive action in the form of its Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act.

The UK’s response has so far been limited to outbursts of righteous indignation from the Foreign Secretary. Ghani has (unsuccessfully) proposed that the current Trade Bill includes a provision whereby trade with nations can be restrained by the courts if genocide is adjudged to have taken place.

Third we have the widely reported news that Ofcom has revoked the broadcasting licence of the CGTN – the overseas division of Chinese Central Television – on the grounds that, contrary to the conditions of its licence, CGTN is not an independent entity but is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party and echoes its political line (for instance on Hong Kong).

It’s ironical that this move emanates from a mere regulatory body rather than any grave political decision, and yet it is likely to cause the most damage in future relations. This is because China does not recognise that administrators can act independently of governments and a political motive is automatically attributed.

A crucial dilemma has thus arisen for UK policy makers: is it right to call out China for its alleged abuses, being prepared to countenance a period of diplomatic deep freeze of a sort currently existing with Putin’s Russia? Or do we have to accept that the Chinese are likely to respond actively to what they see as hostility, and likely damage the substantial trading relationship which the two countries currently enjoy?

Trade and Environment

As for UK-China trade, the UK imports £49 billion worth of Chinese goods while China imports from the UK £31 billion. While this is a substantial figure and the imbalance does not seem outrageous, it should be remembered that the population difference between the two countries means that the UK per capita amount is approximately £1,500 while for China it is only £25.

Ordinary consumers are not necessarily aware of this – and perhaps they don’t care – as although packaging will show the country of origin, there is no such requirement with online sales. At a time when the UK is urgently looking to improve its trading relationships with countries beyond the EU, is it sensible to risk this massive trade?

Also, if Britain is serious about net zero emissions, it must export pollution to manufacturing countries such as China to reach its targets. The choice is either to abandon those targets, unpalatable with COP26 imminent, or accept ever greater overseas dependence.

Recent Assertiveness

China has always needed overseas trade to sustain its double-digit annual growth but counterparties have become wary of sharp practices, such as appropriation of intellectual property and distortion of markets by selling at uneconomic prices. A current example is the sale unto the UK of MG electric cars. China now owns this former British brand and offers attractive models at prices with which other manufacturers could not reasonably compete.

Not only has it financed many infrastructure projects in developing counties with grants or loans at attractive rates, but China has increased its influence in organisations such as the UN and the WHO by agreeing to fund projects which increase its profile or directly benefit its Belt and Road programme .

This assertiveness has become increasingly political. The example of Hong Kong has already been given, for which the suppression of freedom in Tibet is the now-forgotten forerunner. Displays of military might in the South China Sea are of concern to its immediate neighbours. Australia and China are at serious loggerheads over various issues, with China openly faking pictures of Australian soldiers harming children in order to punish Canberra over trade embargo threats. There is no subtlety in its recent diplomacy.

Action Together

China is a proud country and is replacing Russia as a superpower. No country including the UK can afford to treat it as a pariah state. Yet the continuance of trade offers opportunities for criticism and negotiation provided the West stands together to call out abuses. With its economy faltering, the CCP will arguably not want to fight on too many fronts. While the UN, WHO and WTO are unlikely to be effective vehicles for moderation, the UK can utilise its post-Brexit freedoms and bilateral trade alliances to provide support to countries who want to stand up to Beijing. What it cannot do is act alone, a paper tiger in a post-Imperial world.

Sam Hall: The Government must secure tougher emission-reduction commitments at this year’s COP26. Here’s how.

28 Jan

Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network.

It is hard to overstate the centrality of COP26 to UK domestic and foreign policy this year. It will be the most significant international summit of 2021 and the most important set of climate negotiations since the Paris Agreement in 2015. Having failed to plan properly for a global pandemic, the world still has time to mitigate this potentially much greater threat to our security and prosperity. At COP26, the UK has an opportunity to direct and shape this critical global effort, and in the process strengthen its own national mission towards net zero and post-Covid economic recovery.

The political context for COP26 is, on the whole, favourable. The Biden administration has made climate action a priority for American diplomacy. Last year, a slew of major economies followed the UK in setting net-zero targets, including Japan, China, South Korea, and the EU. But economics, rather than politics, are increasingly driving climate action. The costs of clean technologies, particularly solar, wind, and batteries, continue to fall, thanks to innovation, scale, and competition, and good green jobs are being created along the way.

That being said, there are a number of tricky challenges that Alok Sharma, President of COP26, must navigate. Despite new climate commitments from China and others, some big emitters, such as India and Russia, are still reluctant to up their game. And the finance flowing towards clean energy and nature-based solutions is still well short of what’s needed, undermining political support for climate action among developing countries whose fiscal resources have been badly depleted by Covid.

The Government’s primary goal at COP26 must be to secure tougher emission-reduction commitments from nation states. In Paris five years ago, countries agreed a set of climate goals: to limit the global temperature rise to well below two degrees, and to pursue efforts to keep it below 1.5 degrees. But the national pledges that countries made towards achieving those global goals were, and remain, insufficient. Despite lots of recent progress, we’re still on track for more than three degrees of warming by the end of the century, according to the UN.

To deliver the Paris Agreement goals, new national commitments must include both short-term targets, which are important for limiting the cumulative emissions that drive the greenhouse effect, as well as long-term net-zero targets, which are needed if countries are to stop contributing to climate change altogether. They must include concrete plans that deliver those targets while also creating green jobs and clean growth. Developed countries must also follow the UK in honouring their commitment to allocate an annual total of $100 billion for climate finance for developing countries.

Alongside targets and plans, the Government should champion some sector-specific campaigns – such as the phase-out of coal power stations or combustion engines, or the transition towards more sustainable agriculture. Thanks to successive Conservative governments, the UK has strong commitments in all these areas. COP26 is an opportunity to bolster support for these important international coalitions.

The most effective solutions to climate change are market-based. They harness competition and private capital to keep down costs for consumers, while avoiding the need to adopt economically damaging left-wing policy solutions. The Government should use COP26 to enable three of them in particular.

First, the Government should accelerate the growing momentum behind border carbon adjustments (BCAs). BCAs are carbon charges levied on carbon-intensive imports, and carbon charge rebates for exports. This policy – recently advocated on this site by Jerome Mayhew MP – is already being considered by the EU and the US. If implemented carefully, BCAs could unlock the use of higher carbon prices to enable market-based decarbonisation, without harming the competitiveness of UK businesses exposed to international trade.

Some countries regard BCAs as protectionist, but with careful design, this doesn’t need to be the case. With a transparent process for measuring carbon intensity, and by ensuring imports and domestically-produced goods face the same carbon price, the risk of a legal challenge at the WTO can be kept low. The UK should try to shape the international BCA debate, and build a supportive coalition at COP26.

Second, the Government should finalise an agreement on the rules governing carbon markets. Carbon markets enable countries to buy carbon credits from emission-reduction projects overseas and include them in their national carbon accounts. Carbon markets let countries find the most cost-effective pathway to net zero, and provide much-needed private funds for nature-based solutions.

Five years on, this element of the Paris Agreement (known as “article six”) remains highly contentious and is still unresolved. In previous iterations of carbon markets, carbon credits were of dubious quality, were sometimes double-counted by appearing in two different carbon accounts, and diverted investment from crucial domestic emission reduction projects. Using some of the findings from Mark Carney’s new taskforce on voluntary carbon markets, the Government could forge an international consensus behind scientifically rigorous, environmentally-ambitious carbon markets ahead of COP26.

Third, there needs to be much greater focus on the role of the private sector. The Government should urge as many companies as possible to commit to net zero, set a scientifically robust deadline for reaching it, and publish a comprehensive and credible action plan. As happens currently with nation states, we should ask these private sector actors to report against their commitments, and to review their targets every five years with a view to ratcheting ambition. Broadening the scope of the Paris Agreement framework to include the private sector would be a really significant legacy of COP26, and would encourage more businesses to take the lead on climate action.

Finally, the Government must engage its conservative counterparts elsewhere in the world on climate change, and extend the climate discussion to encompass more voices from the right of the political spectrum. Almost a quarter of global emissions comes from countries with centre-right governments. We won’t solve climate change without the support of conservatives, yet too much of the international climate movement remains dominated by the left.

This lack of conservative voices is in large part a result of the historic but shrinking climate scepticism on the right. It must now be rectified. The Government should focus on making the economic case for climate action to its overseas partners, highlighting the UK’s world-leading record on clean growth. The UK enjoys broad cross-party support for climate action – among all sections of the public as well as elected politicians. Thankfully, climate change is not a front in the culture war. We should try to export that model around the world.

This is an exciting year for climate policy in the UK. COP26 will be the culmination of the UK’s recent climate leadership, and a chance to internationalise our clean growth-focused approach. It could also pave the way for a more market-based approach to net zero. It might prove to be one of Boris Johnson’s most significant legacies.

The cynical politics of emissions targets and COP26. How government is poised to declare success while delivering failure.

25 Jan

Dissenters can go figure.  Yes, China is still stacking up new coal plants.  But it is also the world’s largest invester in renewables.  Meanwhile, America was pouring record amounts into them – even under Donald Trump.

Those on the right who don’t believe in man-made climate change can protest as loudly as they like about this shift in the zeitgeist.  Their own capitalist system is turning its back on them.

BP’s plan to increase its renewables twenty-fold, cut oil and gas production by 40 per cent, and not to enter new countries to explore for either is only the tip of a non-melting iceberg.

Slumps, black swans and wars could slow the pace of change.  But the direction of travel is unmissable.  Fossil fuels are out – at least as traditionally used – and renewables are in.  The rejectionists might as well seek to shout down a hurricane.

In many ways, this is all to the good.  Energy security demands decreasing our reliance on, say, Russian coal.  Emissions reduction suggests not looking to our own for a replacement.

We have no quarrel with “the science”: as Roger Scruton pointed out, “the greenhouse effect has been known for over a century and a half”. But giving the shift to renewables a thumbs-up in principle is not necessarily the same as doing so in practice – that’s to say, when a plan is on the table.

The Government has a series of targets for reducing emissions.  Two of the best-known are the ban on the sale of new diesel, petrol and hybrid cars, and the zero emissions 2050 target, rushed in by Theresa May as a legacy policy.

We want to look at these targets, and the pace of change which they suggest, through three lenses: those of people, politics and Parliament. First, people.  Our columnist James Frayne writes on this site that he “has probably done more work on the environment than any other single issue”.

He finds a class and age divergence among support for environmental policies.  They’re important to everyone, more so to younger, urban voters – and in different ways.

To many of those people, Greta Thurnberg is a hero.  Lots of those older, provincial ones have never heard of her.  Their concerns are concrete, not abstract: “excessive use of plastics, the destruction of areas of natural beauty and animal welfare.”

Yes, there’s an overlap.  But how will they react when or if governments tax their hybrid cars, bar the coal they use for their fires, hike their electricity bills, export their jobs and ban them from eating meat?

Cambridge University is blazing a trail for that last policy – a reminder that urban, younger people are concentrated in Planet Remain, and provincial, older ones in Leave Country.  Welcome to the latest version of culture wars.

Now, it’s true that voter protest so far has been muted.  Which brings us to our second p: politics.  Britain’s democracy is geared up to a five-year election cycle.

It is built into the very stuff of Parliament, therefore, for MPs to fixate on the date of the next election (due in this case to be May 2 2024) – and often to look no further.

To make a complex story simple, green technologies mean subsidies, subsidies mean jobs, and MPs want those jobs for their constituents.  Who can blame them?

Hence the rush of articles on this site, more numerous by our count than on any other subject, from backbench MPs making the case for green technologies that will mean “green jobs” in their seats.

What about the bills?  They will mostly arrive on the doortsteps of taxpayers, consumers and business in the medium-run, if not the long-run.  And “in the long run we are all dead,” as Keynes put it.

So, third, to Parliament.  We quoted Scruton earlier on the known factor of the greenhouse effect.  But withheld until now the context of the quote.

The greenhouse effect “implies that, other things being equal, the accelerating production of carbon dioxide will cause the earth to warm”, he added, before briefly citing one of those other things: “fluctuations in solar energy”, he added.

There is more detail in his book Green Philosophy, but one would have thought that this position (the greenhouse effect is a cause of global warming – even the main cause, but not the only cause), would be shared by some on the Conservative benches.

Even if not, one would certainly have imagined that, by now, a band of Tory MPs would be pointing out that the bills for this green programme will come in sooner or later – at which point, a choice may open up between mulcting the taxpayer or losing those jobs.

Perhaps we are not reading Hansard closely enough, but we can find no evidence that such a group exists.  That suggests a new dimension to change in the Commons.

It’s often said that modern MPs are increasingly rebellious (not least by this site).  But they are so in a particular kind of way.  More stand ready to put the interests of their constituents ahead of the blandishments of the whips.

But the Commons seems to be producing fewer Andrew Tyries – the awkward, angular former Treasury Select Committee Chairman, now a peer, who campaigned against climate change orthodoxy, for all his establishment status.

At any rate, climate change sceptics outside Parliament warn of terrible things to come – higher electricity bills, for example.  We take the point, but query the scale – because we suspect that rebellion will finally come when the proverbial hits the fan.

To put it plainly, try telling Robert Halfon that his Harlow constituents must pay higher fuel duty to help meet some government target.  He will revolt.  As will all those other backbenchers who have no ideological or constituency stake in the push for zero emissions.

Maybe government will manage the transition, after all.  But with COP26 coming down the tracks, and with a mass of coporates, lobbyists and cheerleaders clinging to its wagons and rooftop, this is a good moment to take stock.

Reducing emissions and securing supply are only two of a quartet of main policy objectives, the other two being keeping the lights on and keeping prices low.  Remember: the Tory manifesto promised to lower energy bills for those in social housing.

How can these objectives be squared?  Finding an answer doesn’t require a drive-by shooting of green policies.  In some cases, we need more. For example, Rachel Wolf and others have made a strong case for a carbon tax, which is robust regardless of targets.

Nor are these wrong in themselves.  For example, it would make sense to have a timetable for the take-up of Flood Performance Certificates – documents that set out the severity of flood risk for homes, and steps that could be taken to mitigate it.

And there are worse things in the world than politicians declaring success (“we’ve made great progress towards our zero emissions target”) while delivering failure (i.e: backing off some of the tax hikes necessary to actually hit them).

But the landscape ahead looks to be one of conflicting policy objectives, punts in new technologies that won’t always come off, pressure on consumers, business and taxpayers, jobs that won’t always be sustaintable – and further damage to the standing of politics.

In which case, a small boy ought to halt the wheezing emperor of government policy, and point out not that he has no clothes, but that he is overdressed amidst this warming weather.  And would move more lightly were he to cast off the 2050 target.

ConservativeHome will run a mini-series on climate change policy tomorrow, Wednesday and Thursday.

Will Holloway: The challenges awaiting Ministers and MPs as Parliament returns today

11 Jan

Will Holloway is the Deputy Director of the think tank Onward and a former Special Adviser.

This is not the New Year reset that the Government was hoping for. Parliament has returned not to slowing transmission and a gradual reopening of the economy, but to the worst elements of last year: a lockdown, surging infection rates and all the hardship both entail.

But as easy as it is to be depressed with the new start of term, we should recognise that we are entering the final furlong of this crisis. And now that Brexit negotiations will no longer absorb political oxygen, the Government has an opportunity to push ahead not just with vaccinations, but with delivering the promises made on doorsteps in 2019.

As the final months of 2020 have demonstrated, progress can be made at speed. Trade deals are renowned for taking years to negotiate – take for example, the EU-Canada trade deal that took seven years – but the recently agreed EU/UK agreement that covers everything from security to energy bucked the trend, and was finalised in less than a year. 

Even though it can sometimes take more than a decade to develop a new drug, vaccines for Covid were developed within the year. The UK is now fourth globally for doses of vaccine administered per 100 people. We have access to more than 350 million vaccine doses through a range of companies – the first of which have been approved by the independent regulator. Subsequent candidates will be submitted for approval in the near future.

Taken together, this means that enough vaccines have been procured to protect the whole of the UK population several times over. We have been fast to act while other European countries trail behind. Despite not having a major diagnostics manufacturing base in the UK, and at a time when countries around the world were competing for the same products, hundreds of thousands of Covid tests are now conducted every day.

Indeed, since the onset of the pandemic, less than a year ago, over 55 million tests have been carried out, and the UK is now testing more than any other advanced economy per 1,000 people.These are achievements that many would have regarded as impossible at the onset of the pandemic, and show what can be achieved with focus, resolve and urgency. It should be a lesson for the rest of the Parliament.

Already, we are a quarter of the way through this term and time is quickly running away. This year could be make or break for the Government’s new voter coalition. Not only will this year hold the first major test internationally of what the Government stands for globally post-Brexit, with the UK chairing the G7 and hosting of the COP26 climate summit, but it could face its first electoral test since the general election.

Should the elections go ahead, even if later in the year, the campaigns will inevitably be different, but the impact will be no less significant. While commentators are likely to focus on the Scottish Parliamentary elections, and the subsequent implications that they will have for the future of the Union, as well as the London mayoral elections, the results elsewhere may prove to be more of a bellwether for the behaviour of the 2019 general election coalition of Conservative voters.

As Onward’s landmark research before the election and a year on from it showed, the Prime Minister has a historic opportunity to build a new, lasting support base. The research found that Conservative voters – both “southern” and “Red Wall” conservatives – are more likely on balance to lean to the left, albeit marginally, on the economy and to the right on socio-economic issues.

Those who backed the Conservatives at the last general election are economically more interventionist, on balance supporting more regulation rather than less, as well as efforts to retrain workers, while at the same time backing a tough approach to crime and immigration.

With record levels of police recruitment, the launch of the Lifetime Skills Guarantee enabling adults to benefit from hundreds of fully-funded courses, and one of the biggest efforts to protect jobs and livelihoods in peacetime history, the government has a strong record of delivery on voters’ priorities.

But the biggest outstanding promise lies ahead. With Brexit done, the Prime Minister said that the Government’s focus will be to “level up and spread opportunity across the country”. A mission not without challenge, given the recent poll results to suggest that a third of voters had never heard of levelling up.

But terminology aside, increasing opportunities in communities that have for years seen prospects fail to be recognised is one of the great prizes available to the Government. To sustainably and successfully achieve that aim requires bold thinking and ruthless focus. We need to look ahead of the curve.

For example, Onward’s new research on Net Zero found that up to 10 million jobs may be affected as a result of the drive towards decarbonisation over the next 29 years, and the need to plan for and support the shift.  We need to ask challenging questions: what impact do taxes have on different parts of the country? How can innovation be spread beyond the London-Oxford-Cambridge triangle?  And now that we have left the European Union, how can the UK attract more foreign direct investment outside of the usual areas?

Success will involve bending every area of policy to achieve the objective. It is by no means assured. With an unforeseen global pandemic throwing a spanner into the machinery of government, combined with commitments for new infrastructure projects and legislative changes that will take time to come into effect, the pressure is on.

And the stakes are high. It is instructive that only a 4.3 per cent swing to Labour would be needed to generate a hung parliament in 2024. Anything more could deliver an SNP-Labour coalition.  Failure to deliver in the next 12 months may result in the loss of the majority in Parliament, and a return to the stasis and acrimony that succeeded the 2017 result. Success will mean a lasting change, a political realignment across the country, and a consolidated base of support for the future.

The short sharp shuffle. Sharma takes on COP26 full-time. Kwarteng steps up a rung to become Business Secretary.

8 Jan

The end of transition was a calendar fixture and ought, in the event of a trade agreement, to have offered Boris Johnson the chance to refresh the Government – since a deal would both boost his standing with Conservative MPs and bring calmer political waters.

But then an event took place last winter that was very much not a calendar fixture: the first major pandemic in a century.  It would consequently have looked and been frivolous to have a major reshuffle now, and so lash those waters up again at a moment when the Prime Minister needs all Ministerial hands on deck.

The same logic applies to the next natural break in the political calendar: the February half-term recess.  Hospitalisations will have risen and may not be falling by then.

Then there is Easter in early April.  But Covid considerations apart, local elections are due in May.  Why hold a big reshuffle before then rather than after?

And if they are postponed until June, why not wait until September for a shuffle, before the Conservative Party Conference (for there will be one in some form), rather than send MPs off for the summer recess in the wake of a self-made squall – since reshuffles inevitably bring more pain than gain?

The shape of events since the outbreak of a new strain of Covid has thus suggested putting off the shuffle until early autumn.  Furthermore, no Cabinet Minister will then reasonably be able to complain if sacked or moved, having been in place for the best part of 18 months.  However, there was a snag.

Namely, what to do about COP26, due to take place in Glasgow this November?  To cut a long story short, it will need an agreement to be a political success for the Prime Minister, and is set to be his second major diplomatic setpiece of the year – the first being the UK’s G7 presidency and the consequent summit, usually held during the summer.

That requires a lot of legwork.  And the Minister in charge of the COP26 negotiation, Alok Sharma, wore two hats – his other being that of Business Secretary.

So the Prime Minister has gone for a short sharp solution – announced on a Friday evening, a legendary graveyard news slot, in which Governments make announcements that they wish to gain limited publicity.

No big shuffle.  No return to the Cabinet yet for Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who was removed when her DfID job was abolished recently, but reportedly promised a return.  She is back in the department as Energy Minister, which will surely be a disappointment.  And there is no comeback for Sajid Javid, whose name was in the frame for the BEIS job.  Instead, Johnson has opted for a minimalist, orderly solution.

Sharma stays in Cabinet, and goes full-time for the COP26 role.  And Kwasi Kwarteng, already a Minister of State in the Business department, moves one slot up to replace him as Secretary of State.  By our count, the Cabinet was one under its maximum count of 22, so Sharma stays a full member.

Kwarteng is a big, personable, right-wing historian, who once wrote a lively column for the Prime Minister’s alma mater – the Daily Telegraph.  He was a co-author of the Free Enterprise Group’s bracing study Britannia Unchained.

So he is bound to see the trade deal as a further loosening of the bonds.  The Government’s friends will say that he ups the Cabinet’s number of ethnic minority members to five.  Its enemies will reply that it raises the number of Old Etonians to two.

Sharma is not at all a front-of-house Cabinet showman, being inclined to block the bowling and risk nothing outside off stump, but he is a diligent, toiling Minister.  More to the point, he is a loyalist: a Johnson voter in the 2019 leadership election, playing Jeremy Hunt during campaign practice debates.  Kwarteng is another loyalist – though he broke ranks to lay into “misfit and weirdo” Andrew Sabinsky.

The term was Dominic Cummings’, not Kwarteng’s: readers will remember the former Chief Adviser seeking to recruit some to the civil service.  Kwarteng departed from the Government line to accuse Sabinsky of racism. But Cummings has left the building…

We take this mini-shuffle as a sign that a bigger one is now unlikely to come until the autumn.  This is not a strong Cabinet, but the Prime Minister is sticking with it, at least for the moment.

Dependability, a lack of fuss, predictability – and taking the drama out of event.  These are not qualities most people associate with Johnson but, when it comes to Government shuffles, they are becoming trademarks: oh, plus loyalty, of course.  Though the treatment of Trevelyan hangs over these moves like a questionmark.

Stanley Johnson: Next year’s climate change conference should take its lead on carbon pricing from this Agreement

29 Dec

Stanley Johnson is an environmentalist, author, former Conservative MEP and parliamentary candidate.  His new novel, The Warming, will be published next year.

With fellow environmentalists Bill Oddie, Baroness Young and Laura Sandys, I was a founder-member of a campaigning group called Environmentalists for Europe. In February 2016, the Times published the following letter which we co-signed.

“Sir, Britain’s membership of the EU brings benefits to the environment that would be lost if we were to walk away from Europe. By being “in” we have improved our beaches, cleaned up the air we breathe, helped to preserve our nature and wildlife and set standards for animal welfare. That is why today we are launching Environmentalists for Europe. We know the EU isn’t perfect, but we do know that our country’s greatest resource — its environment — is better protected and better preserved for future generations when we remain an active, full partner within Europe.”

Well, as we all know, the Remainers lost. I, for one, totally accepted the verdict of the June 2016 Referendum, confirmed in later elections.

That said, I couldn’t help wondering, as I down with my laptop on Boxing Day to study the text of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, how the environment – nature, wildlife, forests, marine pollution, climate change and so on: issues still very close to my heart – had fared during the course of the intense and protracted negotiations.

Chapter Seven deals with Climate and the Environment and Chapter Eight with ‘other instruments for trade and sustainable development’. Under other circumstances, these two Chapters, and their associated legally-binding Articles, are important and substantial enough to have formed a stand-alone EU-UK Environment, Trade and Sustainable Development Treaty.

Take the issue of carbon taxes, for example, where some path-breaking language was agreed.

Article 7.3 on “Carbon pricing” provides that –

“1. Each Party shall have in place an effective system of carbon pricing as of 1 January 2021.

2. Each system shall cover greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation, heat generation, industry and aviation.

3. The effectiveness of the Parties’ respective carbon pricing systems shall uphold the level of protection provided for by Article 7.2 [Non-regression from levels of protection]

4. By way of derogation from paragraph 2, aviation shall be included within two years at the latest, if not included already. The scope of the Union system of carbon pricing shall cover departing flights from the European Economic Area to the United Kingdom.

5. Each Party shall maintain their system of carbon pricing insofar as it is an effective tool for each Party in the fight against climate change and shall in any event uphold the level of protection provided for by Article 7.2 [Non-regression from levels of protection].”

The Agreement recognition – as a matter of international law – of the part to be played by carbon pricing or carbon taxes in the battle against climate change is, in my view, a tremendously important move forward in the current debate.

I would like to see the Conference of the Parties to the UN Climate Change Convention (COP 26) to be held in Glasgow in November 2021 with the UK in the Chair, adopt a conference resolution on carbon pricing or carbon taxes, based on the language of the Agreement, as cited above.

COP 26 might even go one step further than the Agreement does, and make it clear that carbon pricing or carbon taxes (and national carbon budgets) should take imported carbon into account, as Professor Dieter Helm has so convincingly argued.

Chapter Seven also recognises the vital principal of ‘non-regression.  Article 7.2.2, for example, states:

“A Party shall not weaken or reduce, in a manner affecting trade or investment between the Parties, its environmental levels of protection or its climate level of protection below the levels that are in place at the end of the transition period, including by failing to effectively enforce its environmental law or climate level of protection.”

The key issue here, of course, is enforcement. Article 7.5 says:

1. For the purposes of enforcement as referred to in Article 7.2 [Non-regression from levels of protection], each Party shall, in accordance with its law, ensure that:

(a) domestic authorities competent to enforce the relevant law with regard to environment and climate give due consideration to alleged violations of such law that come to their attention; those authorities shall have adequate and effective remedies available to them, including injunctive relief as well as proportionate and dissuasive sanctions, if appropriate; and

(b) national administrative or judicial proceedings are available to natural and legal persons with a sufficient interest to bring actions against violations of such law and to seek effective remedies, including injunctive relief, and that the proceedings are not prohibitively costly and are conducted in a fair, equitable and transparent way.

In the run-up to the 2016 Referendum, Remain supporters frequently stressed the unique role, as they saw it, of the European Commission and the European Court of Justice in enforcing legislation, including EU environmental directives.

With the Agreement in force, the EC and the ECJ will of course play no further part in the enforcement of EU environmental directives and regulations.

The Government, in publishing the text of the Agreement, comments firmly that –

“The domestic supervisory bodies of the UK and EU will cooperate to ensure effective enforcement of their respective environmental and climate laws. ..This chapter is not subject to the Agreement’s main dispute resolution mechanism but will instead be governed by a bespoke Panel of Experts procedure.”

The Government is now in the process of establishing an Office of Environmental Protection (OEP). It remains to be seen whether, in addition to the cooperation over enforcement between EU and the UK, mentioned above, the OEP will be strong and pro-active enough to fill, or at least help fill, the gaps left by the departure from the scene of the European Commission and the European Court of Justice.