Lynton Crosby crafted David Cameron’s 2015 win with a relentless focus on “hardworking people”. Nick Timothy’s “JAMs” – those “just about managings” – were a variant on the theme. There was little room for green politics in this concentrated appeal to these high utility bill-pressed, immigration-conscious, NHS and state school-using, childcare-needy and home ownership-aspirant voters, concentrated as they are in the town and surburban seats of the Midlands, Yorkshire and the North. Theresa May’s abolition of the Climate Change Department followed Cameron’s reported dismissal of “green crap”. Against the backdrop of the post-crash squeeze, the requirements of government and the gritty realities of Britain’s electoral map, the former Prime Minister’s call to “vote blue, go green”, the wind turbine on his West Kensington roof, and that escapade with huskies in the Arctic looked out of touch.
The question ConservativeHome asks this morning, then, is whether British politics has changed so much since last June that there is electoral sense in again giving the environment strategic priority. It goes almost without saying that it is indispensible to us all in its own right, if only because we exist within it, as human beings that are part of a bigger natural world, which itself helps to form us just as we help to form it. As Roger Scruton argues in Green Philosophy, natural ecology and social ecology belong together: “conservatism and conservation are two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources and ensuring their renewal. These resources include the social capital embodied in laws, customs and institutions; they also include the material capital contained in the environment, and the economic capital contained in a free but law-governed economy”.
At which point, enter Michael Gove. The Environment Secretary is one of the few Cabinet Ministers who knows the philosopher well, and who devours books with an insatiable appetite, consuming them for ideas in the manner of Philip Larkin rifling them for sex. He will have clocked Scruton’s argument that green politics is about than more climate change, inextricably linked to it as many other environmental problems may be. We don’t want soil to be eroded, water to be exhausted or species to be lost. We don’t like badly designed buildings and estates, or landscapes that are despoiled by wind farms – a reminder that environmental considerations can cut both ways. But Gove must also function as a practical politician. He has to put his best foot forward to show that Tories care about the environment and have a plan for it.
So it is that he has moved quickly to get a grip on the department, and put out a message to voters – a task made more difficult by the unreliability of social media. The Environment Secretary has had to stress that the Government does not, repeat not, intend to respond to Brexit by tearing up protection for animals as sentient beings. He has moved to ensure tougher sentences for animal cruelty. He intends to slap a ban on the ivory trade. He has warned that modern farming risks soil erosion – in a departure for Conservative Environment Secretaries. He wants more of the aid budget to be used to combat the curse of plastic. (Scruton writes that “an area of the Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas is supposedly now veneered with plastic rubbish, causing untold destruction to fish, sea birds and other marine life”). He has an acute sense of the importance of the environment to younger voters.
However, one must ask whether it is really as electorally decisive for them as, say, housing; whether some of the current Tory fixation with the 18-25s might be better diverted to the 25-34s, among whom the Party’s ratings are almost as bad; whether the forces that caused Cameron to pivot away from green issues are spent, and how much ice they really cut in those decisive marginals outside the Greater South East: see James Frayne’s columns on this site to get a sense of the point. We put the question because the Prime Minister writes in the Guardian today about the One Planet Summit. There is no intrinsic reason why she shouldn’t do both. But the occupants of Number Ten must use their time and energy sparingly; they must commit themselves directly to political debate where they think it matters most; voters will draw a judgement about the causes they select.
This is a way of saying that Team May cannot prioritise everything. Or, as the old saying has it, that to govern is to choose. Downing Street may have a carefully thought-through rationale for the seven policy principles on which it is briefing MPs. But what is certain is that under May Mark 1, before last June’s election, there was a very sharp sense of who she stood for and which voters the Conservatives were targeting. May Mark 2 doesn’t have the same definition. William Hague calls this morning for the Government to “take the fight to Labour”. But it must have a sense of who it is fighting for to do so effectively. One answer, of course, is the whole country. That is the One Nation tradition. Another is that the demands of social justice require the Tories to have a special concern for those so badly educated, indebted, disabled or substance-ridden that they cannot scale ladders of opportununity. This is right.
But most successful centre-right parties none the less build election wins outwards from a targeted appeal. The rule is the Reagan Democrats, Margaret Thatcher’s C2s, John Howard’s battlers, those “hardworking people” who got Cameron over the winning line second time round. Gove is striving both to create an environmental policy fit for Brexit (he wants powers over fisheries back while we are still in transition) and to persuade green campaigners that the Conservatives in general – and he in particular – are worth a second look. That’s his job. May’s is bigger. Last week’s EU deal, whether you like it or not, was a product of her endurance, grasp of detail, determination, tactical resourcefulness and indifference to the news cycle (or what’s left of it). It offers a glimpse of the chance of a return to more normal politics. But whether this happens or not, May One had a sense of to whom her appeal was pitched. May Two does not. She will need to correct it to increase her chances of staying in office post-Brexit.