3 August 2023

U-turn if you want to Rishi, but Conservatives aren’t for turning on the environment


Nothing is more Conservative than looking after the environment.

From Disraeli to Churchill to Thatcher, Conservatism has always meant conservationism. Championing the natural world and believing that we have a duty to safeguard our beautiful countryside for generations to come has always been a core Conservative value. Now is not the time to forget this. 

And nobody should know this better than Rishi Sunak, who has some of the most beautiful landscape in the country on his doorstep in Richmond in Yorkshire. He should recognise that protecting the planet is not only the right thing to do, it is also a vote winner. 

Never have people cared more for the environment. Recent polling by YouGov reveals that 62% of respondents believe that Britain should take strong action on tackling climate change even if other countries do not. It is one of few issues that is cross-generational, from schoolgirl to grandfather, and genuinely unites the UK from Northern Ireland to Penzance. There is no-one who doesn’t worry about global warming. No-one who doesn’t care about our beautiful countryside, wildlife, rivers and oceans. A genuine and consistent commitment to tackling climate change, to cleaner air and animal welfare will send an important signal to voters about our values.

For generations the Conservatives have been the party of economic common sense. If we offer a costed and comprehensive approach to protecting the environment and improving animal welfare, that rejects the extremes but offers hope and a plan, we will benefit at the polls and attract the next generation to the Conservative cause.

We, as Conservatives, have already made significant achievements in the last decade, and we shouldn’t be afraid to boast about them. We led the way internationally to protect the world’s land and oceans, we were the driving force for a new global treaty on plastic pollutions and protecting the seas, and promised a hugely ambitious plan for animal welfare. 

Yet our commitment to these targets has been called into question recently with the decision to grant new drilling licenses in the North Sea. Yet there are those who argue that this is necessary for energy security and to keep costs to the consumer down. The salience of ULEZ in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election shows that voters are unlikely to embrace environmental measures they believe will make them poorer. So the Prime Minister is making the case that ensuring a domestic supply of fossil fuels to smooth the transition to Net Zero is consistent with a pragmatic green agenda.

One area where the Government has backtracked, though, is on animal welfare, where bills have been dropped due to what was termed a lack of Parliamentary time. No one disputes the immense pressures on the legislative agenda, but Friday sittings are an ideal opportunity to debate bills that enjoy strong public support. Instead, plans to ban puppy smuggling and the import of live animals have been brushed under the carpet.

We have a Prime Minister, who as a former Chancellor in a rural constituency, is uniquely qualified to combine sound money with effective stewardship our green heritage. But to win elections we must not only do the right thing but be seen to do the right thing. We simply cannot afford to concede to Labour on an issue that our electorate care so passionately about. After all, what’s the point of Conservatives if there’s no planet left to conserve?

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Emma Barr is a political commentator and former special advisor in the Department for Transport.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.