It’s an old cliché that the only thing the Conservative party really cares about is power. While there is no point in a political party unless it commits itself to the pursuit and retention of office – though the present Labour party seems determined to challenge that assumption – this hunger for power might also explain the shameless silence from parliamentary Conservatives in the face of their maverick leader’s appalling acts of behaviour, misjudgments, and inadequacies, as meanwhile one ideological totem after another is chopped down. It might explain why, for example, a party committed to low taxation has so far remained relatively silent about a programme of raising taxes (whose main victims will be the party’s supporters). Unlike in normal times – and these are not remotely normal times – its delinquent leader can behave as he likes because the party faces no serious opposition in the House of Commons and it’s hard to see
how any other party could feasibly win the next general election, whenever held. As a result, it has abandoned any moral boundaries that would otherwise rein in its more excessive acts, and its principal players lack any shame of the sort that might, one day, bring it to its senses. climate
Yet cracks in this somewhat depraved unity are beginning to show, with potentially grave consequences. Boris Johnson disported himself proudly, some might say pompously, at the COP26 summit in Glasgow about his commitment to “net zero”. It was typical of his utter lack of seriousness, however, that he interrupted his time in Scotland to make a return trip by private jet to London for a dinner with former journalistic colleagues.
Long before the climate summit convened, there was already unease among Tory MPs that the prime minister’s principal reason for engaging with the carbon reduction policy was that his wife told him to do so. He is not famed for his attention to detail, but whatever the source of his new-found zeal, he has found himself making a series of commitments that many in his party find it highly unlikely he will be able to keep – not, at least, without triggering dire economic consequences and therefore dire political ones. This threatens to cause a rupture in the Conservative party that, coupled with what many expect to be a difficult economic year ahead (with rising inflation and stagnant or falling real incomes), could at last bring a dose of reality to a party shielded from it for rather too long.
The concerns that many MPs express privately – and one or two have done so publicly – go to the heart of personal prosperity and liberty. It is important to stress that relatively few Conservative MPs these days deny that the climate is changing with highly damaging consequences for the planet and for society. Admittedly, a few dispute that this is a man-made problem, but they are increasingly regarded as eccentrics. However, many more believe that the pursuit of carbon zero in the time frame the government proposes is going to inflict unsustainable damage on the economy; and that policies such as eliminating petrol and diesel-powered vehicles will be impossible to execute because of an under-supply of renewable energy; and that there will never be enough electricity to provide alternative means of powering Britain’s car economy, not to mention keeping its road freight supply chain functioning, without a serious nuclear power programme. They also question the policy of promoting heat pumps, a technology that is at present unsuitable for many homes, and unaffordable for many homeowners.
And there is unrest at the suggestion by Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, that the public should cut its consumption of meat, not for reasons of health, but to restrict the population of livestock whose grazing causes deforestation, and whose flatulence damages the atmosphere. The suggestion by an unelected official, who also told a public largely confined to their houses for the last eighteen months to fly less, caused such panic in the Conservative party that it was immediately played down by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. Mr Sunak will have sensed that many barbecue-loving Tory voters aren’t keen to be told what not to eat in order to save the planet, and that one of the other mainstays of Conservative support in the country – the agricultural lobby – will face grave problems if the beef and dairy industries are devastated. It’s indicative of the problems the Tories face: if they pursue this policy in accordance with the promises Mr Johnson has made, many people who habitually vote Conservative might find their lives changed for the worse, and would be less likely to support the party. climate
Individual MPs are beginning to realise they might face hostile lobbies in their constituencies as this policy is pushed through – if, indeed, it is pushed through – from motorists, houseowners, farmers and the like. The Tories also fear the effects of the policy on many of the lower-paid voters who supported the party for the first time in the so-called “red wall” seats at the last election, and who in terms of the party’s ability to win the next election could turn out to be the most powerful interest group of all. As a result, an increasingly active and aggressive group of Tory MPs has formed what they call the Net Zero Scrutiny Group. One of the leading figures in the group is Steve Baker, the MP for Wycombe, the former Brexit minister who has been a member of almost every awkward squad since the present government was formed. Mr Baker has said: “Ministers plan to make the public poorer and colder. They should spell out clearly by how much and test public opinion, or we will have a terrible political crisis later.”
The government – notably Alok Sharma, the minister put in charge of COP26 by Mr Johnson – counters by pointing to various investments being made in places such as Blyth, Teesside and on the Humber to produce and service equipment such as wind turbines required to pursue net zero. But the internal opposition in the Conservative party is having none of this. Mr Baker continues to press for an audit of the proposals, and for the government to state clearly what the policies would cost the average household. Sir John Redwood, another seasoned troublemaker, has asked the Government what its plans are should the sun stop shining and the wind stop blowing. This isn’t as unreasonable a question as it might sound, given there were a number of days earlier this autumn when “global stilling” took place, and the wind hardly blew at all. Other Tory MPs have pointed out that new taxes will be required to make up the £37bn currently raised annually from sales of petrol and diesel. And, of course, a carbon tax would soon have to be replaced too, as emissions fall. The search for things to tax without penalising behaviour that might easily be classified as neutral or virtuous could prove difficult. And there are fears that if the high cost of implementing the government’s policies becomes too well understood by the general public, not only will some of them stop voting Conservative, but it could trigger a loss of support for the policy of tackling climate change itself, which is currently quite high.
In some respects, the cracks in the party are following old Brexit divisions. Mr Johnson carried out an extensive ethnic cleansing of his parliamentary party at the last election, ensuring the retirement of many MPs who opposed his Brexit policy. However, the most active supporters in the Tory party of the net zero policy are former Remainers who think they smell the money of very rich, anonymous men whom they blame for funding the victorious Brexit campaign. Their suspicions appear to be fuelled by calls from the Net Zero Scrutiny Group for the public to have a referendum on the policy before their wallets and their lifestyles become affected. Many of the most prominent climate sceptics – notably Mr Baker and Sir John Redwood – were arch Brexiteers; but much of the old ERG, the European Research Group of pro- Brexit troublemakers, appear to have shifted into the Net Zero Scrutiny Group.
The perception of MPs changing the rules governing their behaviour because one of their own is in serious trouble is like Christmas come early for the notional opposition, seeking something to counter the forces of Conservatism
Mr Baker claims the rationale behind his party’s environmental policy amounts to a “collective finger-crossing”. Although his group are branded climate change deniers, they repudiate this, and say they just want “to slow things down”. It is a clever strategy, for it allows them to paint themselves as political realists rather than as flat earthers. climate
Fissures are beginning to form along other lines as well, which are also potentially catastrophic in terms of public perception. In early November, thirteen Conservative MPs defied the whip and dozens of others abstained when asked to support a government-backed amendment to a motion that would have disciplined Owen Paterson, the Conservative MP and former cabinet minister, for alleged paid advocacy on behalf of commercial interests. Mr Paterson may well have been treated unfairly (though MPs of all parties on the standards committee including his own said not); but the perception of government MPs changing the rules governing their behaviour because one of their own is in serious trouble is like Christmas come early for the notional Opposition, seeking something to counter the forces of Conservatism. The Tory rebels who voted against, and those who abstained, seemed all too well aware of this, and were willing to sacrifice party unity in order to be seen taking a stand. The outrage that followed, from the Conservative party as much as from the opposition, was of such ferocity that the Government made a humiliating U-turn within hours. Paterson himself had no warning; and resigned from the Commons almost immediately, with former colleagues who had been forced to support him left boiling with rage.
One thing is certain, which is that when the predicted economic storm hits Britain in the months to come, the cries of such Tory dissidents, particularly those from the Net Zero Scrutiny Group about the unaffordability of net zero, will become louder and louder. A prime minister whose ability to divorce himself from reality has so far seemed unlimited, may find himself lost for an explanation of what
his ambitious climate policy really entails in the face of a turbulent economy. And, if that is so, clinging on to his job might become considerably more challenging.
Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for the Telegraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham