As a passionate and accomplished minister, Zac Goldsmith’s resignation is a loss to the government and a blow to its environmental credentials.
For four years, he advocated effectively for nature and climate on Whitehall, helping drive the government’s ambitious environmental agenda, which voters backed overwhelmingly in the 2019 general election.
He helped secure a bigger share of the aid budget for climate and nature projects. On the world stage, his tireless diplomatic work was instrumental in securing major new global deals to halt biodiversity decline, end deforestation, tackle climate change, and conserve the marine environment.
His reasons for leaving will add to the concern felt by voters, civil society groups, and other nations that responding to climate change and nature’s decline is no longer a top priority for the government.
While this may not be a fair conclusion – and it is very welcome the government continues to forge ahead with major initiatives like the Energy Bill and Environmental Land Management schemes – it signals a growing green problem that the Prime Minister can’t ignore.
Successive Conservative governments have prioritised environmental leadership, from David Cameron’s pledge to form the greenest government ever, to Boris Johnson’s 2019 manifesto, where net zero by 2050 stood alongside getting Brexit done.
This has largely paid off for the party, earning the trust of voters increasingly concerned about the environment, delivering tangible policy successes such as the fastest decarbonisation rate in the G7, and providing the foundations for many new friendships abroad post-Brexit.
With over a decade of increasingly ambitious Conservative environmental leadership – albeit not without missteps at times – the Prime Minister’s decision not to include it in his five priorities sent an unintended but worrying signal that these issues are on the back burner.
Of course, there are other pressing problems like rising inflation, sluggish economic growth, and the long post-pandemic NHS waiting lists that voters want to see tackled.
But the environment remains a top five issue for Conservative voters too. It also contrasts unfavourably with the inclusion of clean energy among Sir Keir Starmer’s five missions.
Dismissing the issues Goldsmith raised in his resignation letter would be a mistake. His decision to leave government does follow the Privilege Committee’s decision to name him as one of ten Conservative parliamentarians for putting “improper pressure” on its investigation into Boris Johnson.
However, the reasons given speak to sincere concerns about the government’s environmental commitments, and they merit a serious response.
Last year’s tumultuous political year, during which concerning signals were sent about key green policies, damaged the Conservative Party’s environmental brand. Rishi Sunak deserves significant credit for coming into Downing Street and reaffirming the party’s manifesto commitments.
But he missed the opportunity to restore the party’s reputation with the inclusion of the environment among his five priorities.
There is an overwhelming political case for championing the environment. There is little electoral risk from anti-net zero Reform UK candidates, who won only six seats at the last local elections. But there is a growing risk from the 60 per cent of Conservative voters who say the environment is an important consideration in how they vote.
The Prime Minister can retain their trust by championing and building on the Conservative Party’s environmental leadership. As Chancellor, he introduced world-leading measures on green finance, including mandating banks to disclose climate-related risks to their investments and publish net zero transition plans. These policies will be vital to leveraging the private investment we need to meet our environmental goals.
Now, the Government he leads has quietly been making progress on climate and nature, from reforming Ofgem’s remit to include net zero, helping to accelerate renewables deployment, to its recent Plan for Water, which adopted many policies from a group of Conservative Environment Network (CEN) MPs.
But as this week’s report from the Climate Change Committee shows, there remain gaps in policy, from the block on onshore wind and poor levels of home energy efficiency, to slow tree planting rates, and lack of response to the Inflation Reduction Act. As the impacts of climate change and nature loss become ever more visible, the Government can’t afford to rest on its laurels.
While Goldsmith has resigned, many ministers who are equally passionate about the environment remain. In fact, 41 former members of the CEN’s backbench parliamentary caucus are now in government. The Conservative Party and environmentalism are very much still entwined.
Putting the environment back firmly among the Government’s top priorities is a necessary step to win voters’ trust.
First published by ConservativeHome. Sam Hall is the Director of the Conservative Environment Network.