Somewhere out there, the huskies that David Cameron hugged might still be alive. The famous photoshoot took place over ten years ago, and huskies live to the age of about 12, so if they have lasted this long they they’ll be living out their last years next to a warm fireplace somewhere – at best they’ll be a bit decrepit by now.
Still, that’s more than can be said for the policy agenda Cameron launched with their help. The “vote blue, go green” pitch seems an awfully long time ago now. Then, before the financial crisis, he was pitching the Conservatives as zealous converts to the philosophy of green taxes and subsidies.
Economic reality mugged that political fantasy, however. The crash left voters with less money in their pockets, and the green agenda began to look like an unaffordable luxury. Cameron’s greenery struggled on for a time – the Conservatives supported the Climate Change Act in 2008, even calling for a quango to dictate annual carbon targets, with only five MPs voting against it.
In 2010, emboldened by the need to win Lib Dem support, he promised the Coalition would be “the greenest Government ever” but the strictures of austerity and growing concern about the impact of green taxes on the cost of living hobbled his actions. By 2011, ConservativeHome was able to report that Osborne was aware that the costs were prohibitive, and was “putting Cameron’s huskies on a tight leash” as a result.
Ed Miliband’s campaign on the cost of living – and particularly on energy bills – accelerated that declining popularity of the policy agenda in Downing Street, as did growing pressure from Fleet Street. In November 2013 Cameron was reported to have instructed ministers to “get rid of all the green crap”. The new slogan, an unnamed Tory source told The Sun, should be “Vote Blue, Get Real”. If The Sun was on sale in Norway’s arctic circle, the huskies presumably glowered.
But if Cameron’s political priorities had changed, his personal policy tastes hadn’t – he was still the same man, just adapting to a different landscape than he had imagined back in 2006. His departure from Downing Street, and the arrival of Theresa May, heralds a rather deeper change.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change, Whitehall’s bastion of greenery, has been closed down and its functions folded into a department whose priorities are business, energy and industrial strategy. At the launch of her leadership campaign, she warned that “fixed items of spending, like energy bills, have rocketed” and called for “an energy policy that emphasises the reliability of supply and lower costs for users” – concerns that inevitably place her at odds with an energy policy that places environmentalism first and consumers second. May recognises the fact that what seem like small changes in Whitehall spreadsheets have major financial impacts on households which are already struggling to pay the bills, and such households are her priority.
If she is less well-disposed to the green agenda than her predecessor, international circumstances look likely to accentuate that difference.
Donald Trump is on record as saying climate change is a “hoax”, and wants to delete the US’s signature from the Paris agreement. In that context, May being less enthusiastic than Cameron looks relatively mild by comparison. Looking ahead, a rejectionist America also means that the pressure for the UK Government to act in accord with new and radical international agreements will be reduced for the good reason that a Trump White House won’t be signing up to such agreements.
That gives the Prime Minister – and, by extension, the Chancellor – greater leeway to act on green taxes and policies to give consumers a break. It would certainly be in keeping with May’s focus on what our columnist James Frayne calls the just-about-managing classes, who are understandably fed-up with being told that they ought to pay extra to light and heat their homes in order to assuage politicians’ green guilt. Given the Opposition’s predictably dogmatic enthusiasm for punitive taxation, it also offers another opportunity to draw a stark contrast with Labour.
The Government has already given the green light to shale gas extraction, improving the prospect for affordable and secure supplies of domestic energy, which pleased business. Now they could take an axe to that “green crap” and demonstrate an immediate impact on voters’ pockets. That photoshoot with those huskies feels like a very long time ago indeed.