A young Tory who works for David Cameron asked me on Sunday night whether I thought the prime minister was “genuine”. Up to a point, was my answer, within the usual political realities.
The example I gave was that Cameron probably believed himself when he pledged several years ago to be “green” and to commit himself to an environmental agenda. (Of course it also had the upside of helping to rebrand the Tory party). In today’s economic climate, however, many green initiatives are being toned down or thrown out of the window in the drive for growth at almost any cost. Does that mean that the prime minister was insincere? It is a moot point.
I asked a senior cabinet minister what he thought about the Tories and their drift away from the green agenda. His view was that with the economy in the doldrums the government would not be thanked for sticking rigidly to its green promises. It was not that David Cameron and George Osborne no longer believed in climate change; it just wasn’t today’s priority.
Osborne himself signalled this retreat in his speech yesterday as he blamed green regulations for “piling costs” on energy bills and warned: “We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business.”
He re-emphasised the government’s promise to review its tough long-term carbon reduction targets in 2014 to ensure the UK is not out of kilter with other EU countries.
This get-out clause was announced in May by Chris Huhne when the energy secretary set out the new tough “carbon budgets” for the next 20 years or so. Yet it was striking that Osborne wanted to publically take the personal “credit” for this decision.
“That’s what I’ve insisted on in the recent carbon budget,” the chancellor said.
This major caveat undermines the whole point of having tough carbon reduction targets for the medium-term – although ministers might argue that at least they are trying to encourage other countries to follow suit.
But green pressure groups are increasingly disappointed. Andy Atkins, executive director of Friends of the Earth, said: “The reason our power bills are soaring is the UK government’s addiction to coal, gas and oil, not green regulation…protecting the economy and the planet are two sides of the same coin.”