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Copping It: How Boris Johnson’s Global Climate Ambition Risks Rebellion And Rancour At Home

Boris Johnson has set ambitious climate targets for the UK (Alamy)

9 min read

With less than three months until COP26 Boris Johnson is battling on two fronts to show the UK can lead the way in making the high profile climate conference a success.

While there is no global consensus on what should be agreed when world leaders meet in Glasgow at the start of November, the Prime Minister faces a battle with the Treasury to fund ambitious plans to slash emissions by 78% before 2035.

He also faces growing enmity from within his own party after a series of warnings many of those proposals will heap huge costs onto individuals amid scepticism whether the infrastructure and the technology exists to achieve those targets.

A new backbench group is being set up for Conservative MPs disgruntled at the potential political cost of scrapping petrol and diesel vehicles and decarbonising homes this decade, who want to challenge the climate orthodoxy from those in Number 10.

It will be chaired by Craig Mackinlay, who told PolHome he wants it to be “a scientific bedrock of some common sense”, taking in as much data as possible about climate policy, saying current plans are ill-thought out and uncosted.

“I’m trying to just get something sensible out of the middle that has a half-chance of being achieved, and that isn't going to completely kill us off politically,” he said.

Mackinlay, the MP for Thanet in Kent, first set out the position of those Tories unhappy with the costs facing households with the move towards net zero in a recent article for the website ConservativeHome.

It is a subject which has garnered more op-eds by MPs than any other for the site, but as its editor Paul Goodman points out, they are often supportive of the government’s plans.

“And the reason for this is quite simple, which is that essentially the government is putting money into the new technologies in order to try and hit the target,” he said.

“The people who write these pieces almost always have some sort of constituency interest.”

It has been suggested many backbenchers who might potentially be against aggressive environmental policies are swayed by the promise of local investment in green jobs.

Indeed it is a key plank in Johnson’s “levelling up” rhetoric to create jobs in the green energy sector. He has painted a picture of Britain’s decarbonised future where we will “cook breakfast using hydrogen power before getting in our electric car”.

But Mackinlay is not so sure, highlighting a number of fires at battery factories, as well a lack of charging points on British streets and a recent Parliamentary report warning of blackouts if more and more electric vehicles are hooked up to the grid during the daytime.

He added: “We have a lot of chatter about hydrogen… But where are we going to get the bloody hydrogen from? That's a big question. 

“I've always said, if you can give me electricity at four pence a kilowatt hour, that is the price of gas per kilowatt hour, then I'll start to get excited. 

“Until you can do that, then, frankly, I don't think this is going to run.”

He said the as-yet un-named group was still in its “chrysalis stage” at the moment, but was picking up support within the party. Insiders agree the numbers so far are not significant – but when deadlines are actually at the door, or constituents come to them in large numbers, many more Tories could speak up.

“Obviously, we haven't been able to get together as much as we might like to because parliament is such as it is, but there are an increasing number of that are coming out the woodwork saying ‘yeah, you've got this right, we need to think about this, not least because of the cost’. 

“We don't want to be on the wrong side of the electorate, that just will not wear this.”

So far, Johnson is already said to be backing off his target date for ditching gas boilers by five years, with rumours the planned end on sales of new petrol and diesel cars could be next. 

A recent report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research warned a third of UK motorists - around 10 million households - cannot afford even the cheapest electric car, which means potentially another battle with Rishi Sunak over incentives to make these changes affordable.

It is a dual problem for the Chancellor: incentives mean more spending, more take-up of renewables means less income from taxation, which is why this autumn’s spending review will be such a difficult one, against the backdrop of the massive cost to the Exchequer of the pandemic and the looming COP26 event.

Sunak understands the political necessity of being seen to take a lead on green investment and delivering on their climate ambitions, with one Whitehall insider saying the Chancellor “is no environmentalist, but goes along with it because he can read polls.”

A second government source told PoliticsHome last month: “This Spending Review is going to be a tight one but I’d say if there’s money for anything it’s green issues.”

Even if Sunak can carve out some spending in this area that still leaves Johnson in a position where he has to tell the electorate how much decarbonising the economy will cost them personally.

His swift pull back from the creation of a “meat tax” which would have hit consumers earlier this summer led to a prediction from a Tory insider that when presented with the tough choices that have to be made to hit ambitious targets, “what is more likely to happen than not is the government will back off”.

They suggest it will allow ministers to talk about progress, but “the really, really tough, knotty problems will be the ones that end up not getting fixed or pushed back further, and if they push back 10 years, Boris Johnson probably won't be here.”

Goodman, a former Tory MP himself, wrote on this issue that “there are worse things in the world than politicians declaring success (‘we’ve made great progress towards our zero emissions target’) while delivering failure (i.e: backing off some of the tax hikes necessary to actually hit them)”.

Labour leader Keir Starmer identified the same issue, saying this week: “The [government] have quietly been unpicking and dropping critical commitments when it comes to the climate crisis and the future economy.”

But there is likely to be renewed pressure to firm up their climate change policies as the issue has been thrown into sharp focus this summer with devastating flooding in Germany and China, then the UK too.

Despite the creation of Mackinlay’s group there is already a large caucus of MPs - almost 100 - in the Conservative Environment Network, which aims at pushing for better environmental outcomes.

It is chaired by Ben Goldsmith - brother of Zac, an ally of Johnson’s wife Carrie and a key driver of environmental matters in Downing Street, which is pushing for splashy, big picture policies.

There is said to be tension between those in that camp and the more pragmatic wing, who see the problems with telling working class voters to cough up to ditch their diesel vans and install an air source pump to heat their homes. 

There's a similar split in Number 10, and multiple Westminster insiders say that the prioritising or otherwise of COP26 appears to be down to whichever group has the PM’s attention at the time.

The man who is meant to be leading on much of this is Alok Sharma, the former business secretary drafted in to be president of COP26 at the start of this year, but he has been largely anonymous - with recent polling suggesting just 3% of people know he is the person heading up the Glasgow conference, and insiders claiming he is far more well-disposed to the diplomatic element of his role than the publicity side. 

Indeed, the most notable coverage he’s received of late is a story revealing that he’d flown around the world — including to six red list countries — while deploying an exemption meaning he doesn’t need to quarantine in a hotel when he gets back to the UK.

It has meant his spokesperson, the former journalist Allegra Stratton, has been the public face of climate change policy - but her media round last week caused much consternation both inside and outside of Number 10.

Discussing the “One Step Greener” initiative she suggested people should not rinse their plates before putting them in the dishwasher, said people could join the Green Party if they wanted to help the environment, and then told reporters that a diesel car suits her better than an electric one.

On her dishwasher remarks Mackinlay said: “Well, you just think where she's coming from? 

“What was more interesting were her comments to say ‘well, I'm not going to get an electric car because I do long distance and my old diesel is far more convenient’.

“That was that was more illuminating, if she's meant to be the ambassador for all this it seemed a bit of a strange place to start. It was ‘do as I say not as I do’, which I never think is a good start point.”

He added: “The cost is not really thought out at the moment. All we've got so far is the Climate Change Committee, which is the adviser to government and Parliament. 

"It's just one body, which doesn't seem to publish its underlying assumptions, which I'm trying to get to the bottom of, we just got these bland figures at £1.4trillion which - take a deep breath and think about what £1.4trillion means - you've got a choice as a government to either grant fund to encourage me and others to get a battery car or decarbonise our homes, or do you leave it to householders? 

“And at the end of the day that amounts to the same thing it is going to come out of consumers' and taxpayers' pockets, there's no money out of thin air, and my worry is - could this be an HS2 moment; where your initial estimate of £1.4trillion, colossal as it is, becomes infinitely higher when reality comes into play.”

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