Tory wars over climate change. The Conservative Environmental Network v the Net Zero Scrutiny Group.

31 Mar

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.

Craig Mackinlay: Politicians must be honest with the public about the costs of Net Zero

2 Mar

Craig Mackinlay MP is the MP for South Thanet.

The Public Accounts Committee, on which I sit, has today published a new report on Achieving Net Zero. This was a chance to take a serious look at the potential costs of Net Zero, both to the Exchequer and to individuals.

While it acknowledged that “many of the technologies the strategy relies on are currently very expensive”, it failed to establish what reasonable limits on the cost of Net Zero would be or suggest any mechanism for keeping costs under control.

To be fair to the Committee, it relies upon evidence from departmental luminaries; the Government’s various papers are long on words but light on detail. Rubbish in usually generates rubbish out.

The report is, in my view, an opportunity lost and amounts to yet another call to go further and faster without giving consideration to the enormous damage that Net Zero could do, or its geopolitical implications.

We can’t go on like this. The shocking events in Ukraine have surely demonstrated unequivocally the importance of energy security, and the broader global context in which our energy policy sits. The fact that the West has paid for, and continues to fund, Putin’s war machine should be a source of shame.

Now must be the time to review our Net Zero policies in light of the incontrovertible need for secure and affordable energy supplies. We’d hardly be alone in this reconsideration, with Green Party ministers in the German government proposing exactly that.

There is a worrying temptation for politicians, quite evident in this document, to demand an illusory certainty that Net Zero targets will be met. This flows from the legally binding nature of our Net Zero objectives, which invites the demand to know in detail how every tonne of carbon dioxide will be removed.

This mindset is deeply misguided. Committees and Politicians don’t know which technologies will be most competitive in bringing our emissions down, and by inviting the forced adoption of expensive and immature alternatives we are risking storing up huge and unnecessary costs for consumers and, perversely, slowing the pace of emission reductions.

My primary complaint was that the witnesses we questioned were reluctant to be drawn on what the future costs of achieving Net Zero would be. It’s true that this is a very challenging calculation; transforming an economy from being almost entirely powered by fossil fuels to being powered by zero carbon alternatives within a generation is a complex task.

But can we realistically tell the public that this must be achieved at whatever cost? What we can do is look rigorously at policy proposals that are on the table, and at the prices we are currently paying for energy.

Chief amongst these policies are the planned phase-outs of gas boilers, along with petrol and diesel vehicles. Text-book examples, in my view, of the kind of polices that risk completely undermining the Net Zero agenda. Ultimately, by restricting consumer choice, these bans are certain to leave consumers worse off, and the only real question is by how much? Looking at the current prices of electric vehicles and heat pumps, the working assumption has to be: a great deal.

If Net Zero has to be met by the arbitrary deadline of 2050, which is the current legal position applying to the UK’s one per cent of global emissions, we are being forced to accept any cost in its pursuit. This is inherently irrational, and it’s my view that there must be limits on what we’re prepared to pay for decarbonisation.

The idea of the ‘social cost of carbon’ is instructive here. The costs associated with our emissions must be recognised, but if policy costs exceed this amount, then they should be questioned, and adaptation rather than mitigation might be the more cost-effective strategy for a better outcome.

We also mustn’t be distracted from the bigger picture of energy policy either. Decarbonisation is one element, but by focussing on it to the detriment of other considerations we have created a perfect storm of high energy prices and an unhealthy reliance on energy imports. Efforts to boost our own domestic production of oil and gas could give us greater geopolitical leverage, as well as keep jobs and tax revenue here in the UK.

The ten Conservative MPs who voted against the Health and Social Care Levy Bill at Third Reading

15 Sep
  • Baron, John
  • Chope, Christopher
  • Davies, Philip
  • Davison, Dehenna [pictured]
  • Drax, Richard

 

  • Everitt, Ben
  • Fysh, Marcus
  • Mackinlay, Craig
  • McVey, Esther
  • Redwood, John

There were 44 Conservative abstentions – which is in the same territory as last week’s vote on the same issue.  However, the usual cautionary note applies: though some Tory backbenchers will have refused to support the Bill, others will be abroad, ill, or absent for other reasons.

The 29 Conservative MPs who supported the China genocide amendment

23 Mar
  • Adam Afriyie
  • David Amess
  • Bob Blackman
  • Crispin Blunt
  • Peter Bone

 

  • Andrew Bridgen
  • Reman Chishti
  • Christopher Chope
  • David Davis
  • Richard Drax

 

  • Ian Duncan Smith
  • Mark Francois
  • Nusrat Ghani
  • Sally-Ann Hart
  • Philip Hollobone

 

  • Jeremy Hunt
  • Bernard Jenkin
  • Andrew Lewer
  • Julian Lewis
  • Tim Loughton

 

  • Craig Mackinlay
  • Kieran Mullan
  • Caroline Nokes
  • Matthew Offord
  • Andrew Rossindell

 

  • Bob Seely
  • Derek Thomas
  • Charles Walker
  • David Warburton

The 33 Conservative MPs who rebelled over the Genocide Amendment

19 Jan
  • Ahmad Khan, Imran
  • Amess, David
  • Blackman, Bob
  • Blunt, Crispin
  • Bridgen, Andrew

 

  • Crouch, Tracey
  • Davis, David
  • Djanogly, Jonathan
  • Duncan Smith, Iain
  • Ellwood, Tobias

 

  • Francois, Mark
  • Ghani, Nusrat
  • Gillan, Cheryl
  • Gray, James
  • Green, Damian

 

  • Hart, Sally-Anne (pictured)
  • Hoare, Simon
  • Hollobone, Philip
  • Jenkin, Bernard
  • Latham, Pauline

 

  • Lewer, Andrew
  • Lewis, Julian
  • Loughton, Tim
  • Mackinlay, Craig
  • Nokes, Caroline

 

  • Richards, Nicola
  • Rossindell, Andrew
  • Seely, Bob
  • Tugendhat, Tom
  • Wakeford, Christian

 

  • Walker, Charles
  • Warburton, David
  • Wragg, William

Today’s genocide amendment had no relation whatsoever to recent votes on Covid – or other major rebellions that this site has been chronicling.

But there is considerable overlap between the rebels on those lists and on this one.  And even newcomers to our records such as Sally-Ann Hart and Nicola Richards have voted against the Government previously (though rarely).

Regardless of the merits or otherwise of the amendment, lists of those defying the whips now have a certain predictability.

The forty-two Conservative MPs who voted against the Government on the 10pm curfew

13 Oct
  • Ahmad Khan, Imran
  • Amess, David
  • Baker, Steve
  • Baldwin, Harriett
  • Blackman, Bob

 

  • Blunt, Crispin
  • Bone, Peter
  • Brady, Graham
  • Chope, Christopher
  • Clifton-Brown, Sir Geoffrey

 

  • Daly, James
  • Davies, Philip
  • Davis, David
  • Davison, Dehenna
  • Doyle-Price, Jackie

 

  • Drax, Richard
  • Fysh, Marcus
  • Ghani, Nusrat
  • Green, Chris (pictured)
  • Hunt, Tom

 

  • Latham, Mrs Pauline
  • Loder, Chris
  • Loughton, Tim
  • Mangnall, Anthony
  • McCartney, Karl

 

  • McVey, Esther
  • Merriman, Huw
  • Morris, Anne Marie
  • Redwood, rh John
  • Rosindell, Andrew

 

  • Sambrook, Gary
  • Seely, Bob
  • Smith, Henry
  • Swayne, rh Sir Desmond
  • Syms, Sir Robert

 

  • Thomas, Derek
  • Tracey, Craig
  • Vickers, Matt
  • Wakeford, Christian
  • Walker, Sir Charles

 

  • Watling, Giles
  • Wragg, William

Plus two tellers – Philip Hollobone and Craig Mackinlay.

– – –

  • Seven Tory MPs voted against the Government on renewing the Coronavirus Act.
  • Twelve voted against the Government over the rule of six.
  • Now we have 42 this evening – enough to imperil the Government’s majority in the event of all opposition parties that attend Westminster voting against it too.
  • Fifty-six signed the Brady amendment, but it was never voted on, and wasn’t a measure related directly to Government policy on the virus.
  • We wrote last week that Conservative backbench protests would gain “volume and velocity”, and so it is proving.
  • There’s a strong though not total overlap between these lockdown sceptics and Eurosceptics.
  • We count eight members from the 2019 intake – and a big tranche from pre-2010 intakes.
  • Chris Green resigned as a PPS to vote against the measure.
  • He’s a Bolton MP and there’s clearly unhappiness there about these latest restrictions.