The prime minister’s big conversion to environmentalism is no more convincing than her predecessor’s, writes David Burrows.
It has been almost 12 years since David Cameron, at the time the Conservative leader and in opposition, travelled to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard to show the public he cared about the environment. You know the trip: the one where he went all green and cuddly, posing with huskies. Four years later, in 2010, he strode into Downing Street declaring that he would lead “the greenest government ever”. It didn’t quite turn out that way: his legacy on environmental issues was to “cut the green crap” as the party turned back to blue and nasty.
Last Thursday, the prime minister, Theresa May, used her first big speech of the year to start over. Polling had suggested that action on issues such as climate change and nature was key to winning back the voters under 40 who had defected to Labour. The speech and the launch of a (much-delayed) 25-year environment plan would be her “hug a husky” moment – albeit at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes, looking through her binoculars at some ducks.
An embargoed press release released the night before (complete with snippets of what she’d say) garnered arguably the most positive morning’s press this government has had. Plans to wage war on plastic waste certainly hit the right note. An extension of the carrier bag tax to smaller retailers, plastic-free aisles in supermarkets and a call for evidence next month on taxes or charges on single-use plastics all went down well.
If that’s the appetiser, we all thought, imagine what her speech and the plan will bring. Can the environment finally get May excited?
She started with the usual rhetoric, picking only the juiciest cherries from past Conservative environment policies (there are bridges to be mended, don’t forget). There was the 1950s Clean Air Act, which made “the great smog of London a thing of the past”. She also paid tribute to Margaret Thatcher as the “first world leader to recognise the threat of global warming”, as well as Cameron, who “restored environmentalism to a central place in the Conservative agenda”.
(It’s just as easy to find some bad apples in there too. The UK has had illegal emissions of nitrogen dioxide since 2010 and is being taken to court for the third time over woefully inadequate plans to improve air quality. In a speech on the environment to the UN in 1989, Thatcher announced an aim to “recycle 50% of our household waste by the end of the century”; we got to 12.3% and have yet to reach 50% even now. Cameron, I’ve already mentioned).
But sometimes it’s best not to look back. So let’s look to the future, to a world where there is no avoidable waste and no avoidable plastic waste. Sounds great, though these won’t arrive until 2050 and 2042 respectively. And there’s no detail about the policies that will get us there. Besides, what does avoidable mean anyway? According to a footnote in the 152-page plan, it means what is “technically, environmentally and economically practicable”. Surely that’s a roundabout way of saying: “If it’s costly we can cut the green crap”?
Not any more. In her speech, May said those who argue that environmental protection harms business and holds back growth are simply wrong. The same goes for those who don’t believe a free-market economy is compatible with protecting the environment. “They present a false choice which I entirely reject.” This was a less-than-subtle dig at George Osborne – the former chancellor didn’t want Britain to be a world leader in fighting climate change – but does May really believe it?
This is far from clear. Writing in the Times, May’s former head of communications Katie Perrior said the prime minister’s new-found environmentalism could well be sincere but it’s not long-held. Perrior claimed that Andrea Leadsom, the environment secretary for 12 months in 2016-17, was told to make the environment plan “as boring as possible” by May. She did the job perfectly: that plan should have been published in early 2016 but has been gathering dust ever since.
Leadsom was replaced by the political Pollyanna Michael Gove, who has clearly sprinkled his own stardust all over the plan (indeed, he was the one defending it on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme in the high-profile 8.10am slot). To his credit, Gove has judged public opinion well. And neither is he just hugging huskies. He is planting trees, releasing beavers, protecting bees, caring for farm animals and saving marine life. And by pushing the merits of a “green Brexit” to the rest of the cabinet, you could say he has made DEFRA an integral department to this government’s survival.
That is no bad thing, especially if the prime minister is also on board with it. Last week she told us that she is: “Brexit will not mean a lowering of environmental standards. We will use the opportunity Brexit provides to strengthen and enhance our environmental protections – not weaken them.” But do we believe her?
At the party conference in October May turned green, but that was thanks to a cold and cough. Climate change she only made a passing reference to, while plastics were not mentioned once. And now, just three months on, she wants plastic-free supermarket aisles and is considering taxes on cups and charges for plastic bottles?
I don’t buy it. Don’t get me wrong, there are good ideas and ambitions in the plan but, much like this government’s obesity strategy, there’s lots of “working with” and “encourage to” in there too. And that makes it hard to shake the feeling that the prime minister is simply chasing (some/any) good headlines.
Indeed, senior Tories apparently had reservations about Cameron’s snowbound adventure all those years ago. They feared it would be seen as a “photo-opportunity that will serve only to reinforce the impression that he is a nice chap without any firm policies”, reported the Telegraph at the time.
I am sure May is equally as nice as Cameron, and her environment plan appears to show equally few firm policies (or even new ones: the extension of the bag tax is part of an EU directive, for example). Cameron made limited progress and his call to cut the green crap left a sour taste in Conservative conservationism that will be hard to remove. Gove and May are giving it a shot with their green Brexit concept, but unless some clear policies emerge soon then they’re really just polishing a turd.