Boris Johnson is a titan of British politics, and while his time in Number 10 has proven short, his impact has been colossal, not least in environmental policy. He grasped the opportunities of Brexit to reform farm subsidies, turbocharged our renewables sector, and led global efforts to cut emissions at COP26. The question is now, who will pick up the environmental baton?
Given the Prime Minister's green record and passion for our environment, some think the issue is his alone and at risk as he leaves office. I think this view is pessimistic. Like Cameron's signature on the Paris Agreement followed Thatcher's 1989 UN speech bringing global attention to our environmental ailments, Johnson picked up and ran with May's net zero by 2050 target. And so, I hope, will another leader.
Environmentalism is not skin-deep in the Conservative Party; it's a core tenet of conservatism. A leadership candidate who treats it like an add-on, optional extra, or tick-box exercise will not get far with the party's members or voters. Similarly, with integrity and trust at the heart of this contest, a candidate who wants to ditch the net zero manifesto promise every Conservative MP stood on would set the party on a course to lose the next general election.
The Conservatives are one of the few centre-right parties in power in the Western world, with US Republicans, Canadian Conservatives, and Australian Liberals all out of government. One of the reasons for the party's repeated electoral success - but by no means the only one - is their bold conservative environmental agenda. They've not fallen into the trap of surrendering leadership on this popular issue to socialists and liberals. Instead, they are leading on climate change with a net zero strategy to grow our economy and cut emissions.
It's a plan that unites the country and the Conservative Party's broad, landslide-winning voter base. As opinion polling for the Conservative Environment Network has shown, 67 per cent of Conservative voters are proud the UK is taking a leading role in tackling climate change. Fifty-seven per cent think it will be good for jobs and the economy, with only 14 per cent disagreeing. And 76 per cent think the UK should lead the way instead of matching the pace of slower countries.
If the next leader weakened net zero, 27 per cent of the party's voters say they would be less likely to back it at the next general election. The electoral calamity would see Conservative MPs ousted in the blue wall, where the Liberal Democrats hope to use the environment as a wedge issue and in the Red Wall, where new net zero industries are bringing jobs and investment. As Lord Goldsmith and CEN MP Chris Skidmore warned in an article for the Daily Telegraph, ditching net zero would indeed be electoral suicide.
But leadership candidates will want to pick up the environmental baton for more than just electoral considerations. In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, net zero is crucial to strengthening the UK's food and energy security and cutting the cost of living. There's no better route to cheap and secure power than to double down on renewable energy, and there's no quicker way to cut bills than to insulate draughty homes. Similarly, there's no clearer pathway to drive economic growth than to make the UK a world leader in electric car manufacturing, carbon capture and storage, and clean hydrogen. And there's no path to food security without addressing the disaster unchecked climate change and depleted natural capital will be for British farming.
A leader who opts for climate inaction - or worse, scales back our country's ambition - would not only have severe consequences for our planet and economy but for what it means to be conservative today. Whereas a leader who opts for climate action to protect our planet, grow our economy, and strengthen our national security, understands what conservatives need to do to be relevant for tomorrow.
Most Conservative MPs get this, and the party's door-knocking ranks are equally in tune with voters' opinions, while only a few siren voices seek to import the climate culture war abroad. So while we will hear some unwise net zero bashing in the coming weeks, expect to see serious contenders start to brandish their green credentials too. That's why I am optimistic that the Conservative Party will elect a new leader who will continue the work of their predecessors and take our country forward.
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