With the media's annual summer silly season coming to an abrupt end with the fall of Kabul, the fate of Geronimo the alpaca now seems determined, and so too should the conclusion of August's confected row over Net Zero.
When I asked a senior Tory campaign strategist what he made of those WhatsApp messages from certain Red Wall Conservative MPs on Net Zero that got leaked to The Sun, he said, "Those MPs were simply projecting their own personal scepticism and passing it off as representative of a broader view, which it patently isn't. All our polling and focus group data shows their constituents don't share their views on this."
Whilst the rebel text messages were obviously a straightforward bubble story for reporters in a context when not much else was going on, the coverage risks having left a false impression of where the mainstream debate is on Net Zero. It glossed over evidence of what most people actually think about these issues, and (not for the first time of late) suggested certain elements of the commentariat are badly out of touch with public sentiment.
Conservative campaign guru James Frayne made this point writing in the Telegraph this week, “Across different demographic groups, people are genuinely worried about climate change; they are open to significant action to reverse it and mitigate its worst effects. This includes openness to quite radical policy options like carbon taxes. Even working class voters now care deeply about climate change, having previously lagged way behind professional voters.”
Ben Page of IPSOS Mori noted how dramatically public concern has risen about climate change over the past decade, and Opinium's Chris Curtis flagged work by researcher Will Jennings for Centre For Towns that starkly demonstrates how this sentiment is shared in "Red Wall'' areas.
In fact, pollster James Kangasooriam, who is credited with creating that phrase, noted in his piece for The Times earlier this year, "When I think about the archetypal swing voter, it’s someone who wants to revoke the citizenship of the Isis recruit Shamima Begum... but is also deeply concerned by climate change (a top three issue for the British public)."
That chimes with what we found in the most extensive polling work ever done on Brits' attitude to climate change. As I wrote at the time:
"Britain Talks Climate, a collaboration between Climate Outreach and ECF, shows the Leaviest segment, which also has the highest number of Labour-Tory swing voters, are amongst the most climate concerned. Loyal Nationals, as they’re dubbed, are also slightly more concentrated in Red Wall seats."
The most recent polling on the topic, from just a couple of weeks ago, once again affirms a clear majority of voters in every demographic worry more about the costs of climate change than the costs of going green.
So it might seem that certain MPs just need to spend more time speaking to their constituents. But realistically, as Amber Rudd put it in her excellent Times column on the topic, "The same voices that once denied the science and lost in the face of overwhelming evidence are now pursuing denial via the backdoor, countering solutions without putting forward any credible ways of putting us onto a safer trajectory."
It was striking to see Steve Baker and his co-conspirator Craig Mackinlay trying to distance themselves from climate science denial, even as they joined forces with the long-time climate denial lobby shop, GWPF. It suggests they may know how far their climate positioning distances them from their constituents in a context where Baker is sitting on a very narrow majority in a "Blue Wall" seat. I'm told they privately concede they don't have anything close to the numbers in Parliament to achieve their goals.
As The Spectator's James Kirkup has written, "A new generation of Conservatives know that decarbonisation can mean jobs and wealth for voters." Ironically many of these are themselves "Red Wall Tories" such as MPs Simon Clark, Ruth Edwards and Alex Stafford, and the Mayors Ben Houchen and Andy Street. More than a hundred backbenchers now sit in the Conservative Environment Network caucus compared to perhaps ten in Baker's crew. Meanwhile the Right's foremost thinkers from Policy Exchange to Onward and CPS all regularly publish practical policy ideas for Net Zero delivery.
Over the past year or so, Johnson has ended taxpayer support for fossil fuel exploration overseas, unblocked onshore wind, announced regulation is coming to end petrol and diesel sales, and pushed forward towards quadrupling offshore wind to meet the tougher 2035 climate target he announced (in the face of precisely zero Parliamentary opposition.) This week his Business Secretary, like his Chancellor, have been celebrating new clean energy jobs created. At the same time, Keir Starmer's Labour, with support from the party's Northern champions like Caroline Flint and Lisa Nandy, has rightly said more ambition is required. This is where you’ll find the true political centre of gravity is in this debate.
Of course, none of this means Johnson won't need to be incredibly careful about the serious practical challenge of replacing gas boilers. Similarly, Rishi Sunak will need to manage sensitively how these changes are paid for to ensure the transition doesn't disproportionately hit low income households in the way past policies arguably have done. But as Tony Blair's institute made clear this week, the climate targets don't actually require anything like such dramatic lifestyle changes as critics on both sides of this issue are pretending it will.
So when, this autumn, Johnson asks people to replace their gas boiler with something greener sometime in the next 15 years, and their diesel cars sometime in the next ten years, and with significant financial support from the government to do that, in a context of spectacular cost reductions in green technologies, I believe we can expect most MPs will be content to get behind the plans. The direction of the market is already set, and more than two thirds of the world is now covered by net zero targets.
Some friends and colleagues will think I'm indulging in wishful thinking, and of course we should not be complacent. But let's keep in mind Johnson and Sunak are preparing to roll out the red carpet in a few weeks’ time for world leaders including President Biden and President Xi to discuss what they will do in the decade ahead to hit their own Net Zero targets, and to respond to the latest IPCC report.
My expectation would be that this little August furore, based on nothing more than on a few marginal voices, fond of the spotlight and lucky enough to have access to the comment pages of certain newspapers, will follow the same pattern as another recent "MP controversy," which just like this one in no way reflected any significant actual controversy amongst the general public.
A minority of right-wing British pundits and MPs argued for a Trump-style approach to Covid19. First they denied the pandemic was a big deal, then they argued the government was overreacting, and then they said it might be cheaper to just let it rip. They cautioned gloomily that without a change of tack from Boris, the voters might otherwise flock to Laurence Fox and Nigel Farage in their rage. Largely anonymous media briefings suggested these commentators attracted sympathy from certain influential Conservative backbenchers, prompting certain potential future Tory leadership contenders to flirt with their ideas. Ultimately they lost the argument just as Laurence Fox lost his deposit and Farage (once again) retired.
No10, mindful of public opinion, and with access to the best scientific and economic expertise out there, ultimately decided to follow other advanced economies on Covid. All the signs are the Prime Minister will again when it comes to climate change.
As Peter Franklin wrote on Unherd,
"In the next few months we’re going to see the most retrograde parts of the Right do everything they can to divert the Government from its climate agenda. And like the worst parts of the Left, they’re going to try and turn the environment into a culture war. But it isn’t. In this country, the fight for a greener, cleaner future is a unifying issue."
It will be important we keep this at the front of our minds in the months ahead. If we campaigners don't take Baker's bait, and are mindful to heed the lessons of other countries where activists have enabled their debates to become polarised, there's absolutely no reason to believe we can't keep making progress.