Since becoming Conservative Leader in 2005 and leaving office in July 2016, David Cameron (left) sought to modernise and rebrand the Conservative Party’s overall image, focusing on the ‘quality of life’ issues and making the protection of the environment one of the key policy areas of this new approach:
For many years, it has been a widely held belief that the environment is an issue for the left. So I understand why, in environmental circles, the high profile that my party has recently given to the challenge of climate change was greeted initially with a degree of scepticism… But suspicion has now turned to surprise, with the realisation that politicians of the centre right are engaged, in earnest, with this most pressing and crucial challenge for our society.5
In pursuing such ‘environmental conservatism’, Cameron has been acknowledged that green issues were traditionally a policy linked to the ‘left’, and he has therefore sought to extend the Conservatives’ appeal as being more ‘compassionate’ and ‘caring’, and for his party to embrace a more diverse range of social issues. In doing so he has argued for the need to ‘enhance the environment, and meet “the great environmental threats of the age”’.6 He has also made it clear the wants to play a leading role in the international arena when it comes to shaping the global impact of this political issue.
At a very early stage of his leadership Cameron paid a high-profile visit to Norway (in April 2006) to witness the effects of global warming, and the pictures taken of him being pulled on a sleigh by husky dogs were heavily promoted by the Conservatives in an attempt to modernise the party’s image and appeal to a wider range of voters that were motivated by such environmental matters. From 2006 onwards, Cameron was also pictured regularly riding to work in Westminster on his bike, although this image was later undermined when it appeared that a large gas-guzzling car followed behind carrying his significant political documents. Nevertheless, as a result of this increased Conservative attention to environmental issues, the party coined the phrase ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’ in the 2008 local elections, prioritising the need for a low-carbon economy alongside greater use of renewable energy and green technologies if and when it returned to power.
Yet on a less enthusiastic note, some pro-green policy suggestions emanating from the party’s ‘quality of life’ policy group, such as charging for parking in out-of-town car parks (2007), ran into opposition from mainstream Conservative opinion and the party’s more traditional, pro-business MPs who see environmental issues and green taxes as a potential further regulation to obstruct and disrupt business, and who perceive the ‘green agenda’ as merely a cloak for excessive state intervention and taxation. This has led to ‘green’ critics of the Conservative position to argue that it is vague in many of its environmental policy positions and that its adherence to conventional methods and means of economic growth can ultimately lead to further long-term environmental damage and is inconsistent with the party’s supposedly green credentials.
‘Green’ Politics in Government since 2010
This adoption of policies and issues not traditionally associated with the Conservative Party was a key feature of Cameron’s overall strategy to broaden the party’s popular support and to focus on social as well as economic issues. Even the party’s revamped logo under his leadership has incorporated the image of a green tree. Following the party’s return to power on a national level after 2010, Cameron was given the opportunity to put his environmental rhetoric into action, and he announced that he wanted his administration to be ‘the greenest government ever’ and to meet all international obligations within this policy sphere. He quickly established a ‘Green Investment Bank’ to encourage greater use of green energy and more low-carbon commerce within a business environment, although some have questioned how effective this has been in practice, with critics claiming financial backing and appropriate environmental subsidies have been insufficient. Cameron’s administration from 2010 also set out plans to reduce carbon emissions in public bodies by 25%, and launched an initiative to create 1,000 apprenticeships to insulate homes.
However, the Tory flirtation with green voters has been open to question the longer the party has been in national office, and since 2010 there has been some clear evidence that some significant party backbenchers are not convinced by the environmental arguments, with significant numbers of Conservative MPs supporting an extension of Heathrow Airport,7 more road-building schemes, opposing wind farms and displaying a scepticism towards global warming. There have also been internal party divisions evident over the proposal for a new high-speed rail link (HS2) affecting many parts of the British countryside and due to be built from 2017 onwards. In 2013, even Cameron himself was reported to have said he wanted to ‘get rid of all the green crap’ from energy bills in order to keep consumer costs down, which caused some concern from his coalition partners. There, therefore, appear to be tensions between modern, ‘green’ Conservative politicians such as the environmentally friendly MP Zac Goldsmith, and the more commercially focused Conservative traditionalists.
Some Conservatives (as well as right-wing parties such as UKIP) are ultimately sceptical of the scale of climate change, and this has led to divisions between them and more pro-green figures within UK politics; such a position is possibly reflected in wider public opinion (as of 2010):
Climate scepticism ‘on the rise’, BBC poll shows
The number of British people who are sceptical about climate change is rising, a poll for BBC News suggests. The Populus poll of 1,001 adults found 25% did not think global warming was happening, a rise of 8% since a similar poll was conducted in November.8
The Conservative Party has ultimately sent out some mixed messages on ‘green issues’ since Cameron was leader from 2005–2016 and then after the party came back into government as part of a coalition in 2010, and then alone after 2015. The party has attempted to express legitimate concerns and awareness of environmental matters, while also seeking to retain a degree of choice for the ‘consumerist’ citizen in how green issues affect and influence their everyday lives. It has been argued by the environmental lobby that the government in power since 2010 has been more focused on tackling the deficit and that environmental initiatives have therefore been de-prioritised and had spending cuts imposed on them as part of the austerity agenda.
The Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition from 2010 onwards had to tackle the different shades of opinion within MPs of both parties on this issue, with the junior coalition partners broadly seen as being the more ‘green’ of the two parties based on its long-term policy positions on this issue. This was perhaps reflected in the Liberal Democrats being awarded the most ‘green’ Cabinet post in the coalition government (see below), and which indicated an in-built Conservative indifference to the subject, despite Cameron’s various efforts. Although there was a ‘green’ initiative to charge 5p for plastic bag usage in late 2015 (to limit negative environmental impact of surplus bags in use), this had arguably been in the pipeline for some time and was more enthusiastically advocated by the Liberal Democrats. The perceived reduction of focus on green issues by the Conservatives has been further observed by various commentators, particularly since the Conservatives were re-elected to govern alone in 2015; see example below:
‘The nine green policies killed off by the Tory government’,
(The Guardian, 24th July 2015)
This reduced Conservative focus and emphasis on environmental issues and climate change became more evident in Theresa May’s Cabinet reshuffle in 2016. The new prime minister allocated such responsibility for ‘green’ issues to the newly formed and rebranded ‘Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’, under new Secretary of State Greg Clark.