Janan Ganesh: Cameron Fells Green Politics
Financial Times: David Cameron has not given a major speech on the environment since becoming prime minister in 2010. Given Britain’s economic and fiscal plight, it is hard to blame him.
Has a political era so recent ever seemed so far away? Britain just before the crash was, at least to judge from the way its ruling elites talked, evolving into a post-material society. A decade and a half of uninterrupted growth and low inflation had slowly put economic discourse to sleep. All major parties tacitly accepted a mixed economy – more egalitarian than the US, more free-market than Europe – and ever higher public spending too. They differed at the margins, of course, and played up footling quarrels like ham actors, but their real focus was migrating to other, softer issues: culture, lifestyle and, above all, the environment.
The face and voice of this holiday from history is now the prime minister. With huskies in train, David Cameron began his leadership of the Conservative party with a visit to a Norwegian glacier threatened by global warming in 2006. The gesture helped to soften his party’s image at the time but, as a statement of priorities, it has not aged well. Neither has his ethical finger-wagging at business, or his insistence that “GWB” (general wellbeing) was as important as gross domestic product, or, as he now knows painfully well, his environmentalist objections to a third runway at Heathrow. Far from asking how to preserve and hasten economic growth, he seemed animated by the question of how society could remain sane and healthy despite economic growth.
Recession put paid to this strain of Tory modernisation, which was always more modish than truly modern. After rebranding themselves as guardians of Mother Earth, the party had to scurry to re-rebrand as flinty custodians of the ruined public finances. The undulations of internal Tory politics have played a part too. Mr Cameron’s mania for greenery and wellbeing was ignited by Steve Hilton, then his closest adviser. But Mr Hilton grew more Thatcherite after the crash and in any case George Osborne, the hawkish chancellor of the exchequer, gradually became the prevailing counsel in Mr Cameron’s ear. Then came the election of an unashamedly pro-business generation of MPs two years ago.
It has not eluded the chancellor’s notice that the percentage of voters who rank the environment as an important issue has fallen to low single figures. In the face of resistance from his governing partners, the Liberal Democrats, he is trying to prune the coalition’s green policies, especially those likely to impose costs on ordinary people. His efforts to keep fuel duty down betray his determination to avoid his party being painted as high-minded rich kids indifferent to the living standards of ordinary people. Mr Cameron himself has not given a major speech on the environment since becoming prime minister in 2010. Given Britain’s economic and fiscal plight, it is hard to blame him.
His cabinet reshuffle last Tuesday fanned this bonfire of the inanities. A change of transport secretary has made it easier for the government to contemplate a U-turn on its silly promise to abjure that third runway. Owen Paterson, perhaps the most conservative member of the cabinet, has moved to environment. Michael Fallon and Matthew Hancock – men never much taken with the more esoteric excesses of Tory modernisation – will champion deregulation in a Department for Business that has done too little of it. And there is more to come. The autumn should see a new round of policies to make the UK leaner and more competitive: looser labour laws, for example, and progress in the government’s mission to quicken the lugubrious planning process
However, businesses would be wise to view this continuing shift from pre-crash absent-mindedness to a more economically hard-headed era without great excitement. Nothing is being proposed that will make their lives radically easier anytime soon. The only thing that can – a soothing of economic tumult abroad, and especially in the eurozone – is not in the gift of any government to deliver. And although Mr Cameron can tinker with his personnel, policies still have to be signed off by the Lib Dems. They are girding themselves to resist any watering down of the government’s environmental programme.