Oliver Letwin’s sixth policy group will report later this week and it’s an interesting question as to what David Cameron’s head of policy will do then?  It is Francis Maude, I understand, who has the job of converting all policy ideas into usable form.

The sixth policy group – on the environment and the broader quality of national life – is potentially the most controversial.  If, for example, it recommends large increases in green taxation it risks undermining the good work that has been done in recent weeks in restoring some faith in the Cameron project amongst traditionally Tory-supporting newspapers.  This morning’s news about the report was nonetheless encouraging:

  • There will be tax rewards for good green behaviour and not just penalties for environmentally-insensitive behaviour;
  • The potentially very bureaucratic green miles proposal has been dropped;
  • John Gummer has prevailed against Zac Goldsmith’s strong opposition to nuclear power.

As David Cameron and George Osborne consider the remainder of the Gummer-Goldsmith proposals they need to be aware of six main dangers…

Gummercamerongoldsmith_2Green taxation is unpopular.  It’s unpopular with voters at large.  It’s unpopular with Tory members.  It’s unpopular with the right-of-centre press.  Most people would rather see technology-led solutions to environmental problems.  They see green arguments as a convenient cover for politicians who want to find stealthy new ways of raising taxes.  A report from The TaxPayers’ Alliance earlier this week found that existing levels of green taxation more than cover the environmental costs of our activities.  John Redwood recommends a mindset shift to tax relief for planet-friendly activities.  He’s correct to do so.

Green action mustn’t punish the poor. Green taxation – like the congestion
charge and VAT on domestic flights – can fall most heavily on the
poorest.  There is a real danger that environmentalism can look like a rich man’s sport.  The Gummer-Goldsmith report will apparently attack "the hedonistic treadmill" and tendencies to treat the market as a god.  Few Conservatives are in favour of hedonism or unregulated capitalism but too much environmentalism resembles rich people telling the poor what they can and cannot do.  Rich people who enjoy foreign holidays want to tax the budget getaway-to-the-sun for low income families.  Already rich nations want to limit the industrial development of poor nations.  It is true that environmental problems hurt the poor most but it’s important that the wealthiest voters and countries shoulder a full share of any environmental action.

The party leadership mustn’t just talk green.

Voters won’t respect the Conservatives on the environment if we don’t
walk the walk.  If we’re going to clamp down on domestic flights then
the shadow cabinet must use trains.  If we’re going to object to
foreign holidays then frontbenchers need to spend recess in Devon, Cumbria and at other UK resorts.

Green action should not endanger Britain’s competitiveness.  Much environmental action can be a good in itself.  Zac Goldsmith makes a very good case, for example, in today’s Mail on Sunday for retailers taking more responsibility for the excessive packaging that comes with their products.  The dangers of energy insecurity should also encourage more renewable energy use and more energy conservation.  But some of the recommendations of the Gummer-Goldsmith report look economically dangerous.  Crude restrictions on airport expansion will only transfer business overseas.  Heathrow’s loss will, for example, be Schiphol’s gain.  We also need to be aware that most of the growth in emissions is coming from India and China.  British action should not amount to unilateral economic disarmament.

Climate change must not eclipse other concerns.  Team Cameron now realise that they talked too much about the environment in their first eighteen months.  Recently they have begun to achieve more of a balance in their communications.  They are now also focusing on issues that are more worrying for voters: the NHS, crime and the cost of living.  That needs to continue.

There should be a focus on ‘achievable conservation’ – not changing the world.
The party’s green messages have been most successful when they have been local.  The 2006 and 2007 ‘Vote Blue Go Green’ campaigns successfully highlighted the excellent record of Conservative local councils.  There is only so much that Britain can do to combat global climate change but there’s a lot more that a Conservative government can do locally and nationally.  I think of planting trees, recycling, cutting waste, investing in renewables, protecting natural habitats and so on.  We should focus on what voters know is doable.  I mention Zac’s Mail on Sunday article again as a good example of sensible, achievable environmentalism.

If the party gets all this badly wrong in the next seven days we can expect talk of an autumn election to become frenetic again.