This Thursday David Cameron will have been Conservative leader for 100 days. Every day this week ConservativeHome will be dedicating YourPlatform to a different take on those first 100 days. Peter Franklin, who works in Parliament for Greg Clark MP, writes this first essay in a personal capacity. In the recent past Peter has been an advisor to Tim Yeo and Oliver Letwin.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the environment has become the signature issue of David Cameron’s first hundred days in the top job. Green issues have cropped-up with unprecedented regularity in the Leader’s speeches, campaign events and questions to the Prime Minister. And to give the man his due, he practices what he preaches – riding a bicycle to work and installing a wind turbine in his garden.
More substantially, we’ve seen the establishment of the Quality of Life Policy Group, headed by environmental elder statesman John Gummer and charismatic green campaigner Zac Goldsmith. In Parliament, our green benches are looking all the greener – Peter Ainsworth now leads the Shadow DEFRA team, assisted by Greg Barker and Bill Wiggin. Meanwhile, Tim Yeo, another of our environmental elder statesmen, has become chairman of the influential Environmental Audit Committee. In other words, David Cameron has appointed the greenest possible candidates to every significant environment-related position in his gift.
David Cameron gives every impression that he means business on the environment. But before we ask whether or not rhetoric is likely to translate into manifesto promises, it’s worth asking why the change in tone.
The environmental content of our 2005 manifesto was meagre to say the least and compared badly with that of our opponents. This was the direct result of an election strategy focused entirely on the top five or six voter issues. It would seem that our highly paid strategists had overlooked the fact that while the environment may not have been among the top concerns of the electorate as a whole, more detailed polling showed that it certainly was for a significant minority of voters. Other polling showed that we were seen as the weakest party on the environment and that the environment was our weakest issue. Indeed, it was the only issue on which we couldn’t even get the support of a majority of our own voters.
It seems clear that the polling evidence has concentrated minds wonderfully. But there is more to it than that. The party leadership has been won over on the actual issues too. In this respect Oliver Letwin has played a pivotal role. Following our third successive election defeat, he came to his new role as Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment as a mild sceptic on many green issues. However, as if very often the case with those who take the time to review the evidence, he, much like Margaret Thatcher before him, was persuaded of the enormity and urgency of the challenges posed by climate change and other environmental threats.
It has been fascinating to see the chain reaction of events that has followed – Letwin’s influence on David Cameron; the re-emergence of our environmental elder statesmen; the influx of green-minded newcomers led by Zac Goldsmith and our increasingly warm relationship with a green movement that feels betrayed by New Labour. Most intriguingly, green issues have formed the basis of new spirit of cooperation with the Liberal Democrats and other opposition parties – for instance, in the adoption of a joint position on climate change.
So will all this greenery result in real change in either or policies or our popularity? Too early to tell, of course – but there was a poll putting David Cameron well ahead of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the greenest leader stakes. Then there is the Conservative Party’s apparent shift on the nuclear issue, with Tory energy spokesman Alan Duncan openly voicing his “suspicion” of the case for a new generation of nuclear power stations.
There will be some internal opposition, of course. But it unlikely to be sustained, not least because such opposition is usually based on a disregard for green issues rather than properly informed engagement. The real crunch will come when tough decisions have to be made in the latter stages of the policy development process. Of course, many if not most environmental measures are relatively painless other than for polluting vested interests. But some necessary actions, such as those required to curb aviation emissions, won’t be easy for anyone. And it is here that Cameron’s green Conservatives will face their toughest test.
TOMORROW: IAIN MURRAY WILL LOOK AT THE NEED FOR DAVID CAMERON TO REACH OUT TO LOWER INCOME FAMILIES IN LABOUR’S HEARTLANDS.