03 October, 2023
The Guardian, by Helena Horton

At Conservative party conference this year, green politics is under attack.

From the energy secretary, Claire Coutinho, attacking so-called “net zero zealots” to Sunak’s watering down of environmental policies, and the resurgence of the likes of David Frost, Nigel Farage and Jacob-Rees Mogg, it is not in vogue to be green.

In previous years, Tory MPs lined up to proclaim their green credentials – it was seen as a vote-winner and a way to show they were caring. Now, not so much.

This means many eco-friendly MPs – and there are a few – have simply stayed at home, and those who are here seem to be feeling depressed. After Coutinho attacked those who “view net zero as a religion” she turned up to a Conservative Environment Network (CEN) event to remind them she is a member. The reception was muted, and those present were jokingly referring to themselves as “net zero zealots”.

The former Cop26 president Alok Sharma came to Manchester to make the case for net zero to a group of businesses and Labour’s Andy Burnham at a green summit, but has been conspicuously absent so far from the conference hall. It’s just as well – he has been critical of recent moves to water down environmental protections.

Sam Hall, the leader of CEN, who has arguably done more than almost anyone else to keep the Tories united on net zero, put on a brave face, telling the Guardian “much of the actual policies haven’t changed, just the rhetoric around net zero”, but even he described the rhetoric as “unhelpful”. Hall added: “We need a positive case for net zero to combat Labour’s environmental narrative at the election”. So far, Coutinho has stuck to implying the Labour party wants to implement a meat tax.

The former Boris Johnson environment adviser Sam Richards now runs Britain Remade, campaigning for more renewable energy. He pointed out that some polling showed Tories getting just 1% of the young vote, suggesting this change in policy and rhetoric may be short-lived if the party wants to court younger voters, for whom the climate crisis is a top priority.

The ever industrious former net zero tsar Chris Skidmore told the Guardian he is “doing as much as possible” to keep net zero alive.

e leadership rather than roll back [on net zero]? It’s undeniable that investors who are making decisions right at this moment in boardrooms around the country about where to place their investments are all looking for that long-term certainty.”

Skidmore also addressed Sunak’s claims that net zero is costing “ordinary people”, adding: “Net zero is not a cost, and actually delaying any measures will only cost householders more in additional gas bills, because this has been a cost of gas crisis. Going further and faster on net zero will result in significant savings being made, and that’s where we can deliver to continue to lead in this global net zero race.”

Theresa May, the former prime minister who enshrined the net zero target in law, has hoped the green policy, rather than disastrous Brexit votes, would be her legacy.

But even she was lukewarm at a CEN drinks reception. She said: “Now, net zero isn’t about a bossy state telling people what to do. We shouldn’t be out there wagging our fingers and saying: ‘You must never fly again.' You can never drive a car again. You can never eat meat again.’ We do that, we won’t take people with us. And as the prime minister has said, we must take people with us.”

But May did say that net zero targets must still be met, and that “climate change is the greatest threat to civilisation as we know it”.

Smiling thinly, she added: “Remember, we are the only party with ‘conserve’ in our name.”

Though much of the Conservative green legacy has been dismantled, that, at least, remains true.