George Osborne is not a climate sceptic, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Chris Huhne, was obliged to pronounce yesterday, in the face of growing criticism of the Chancellor's commitment to Britain's environmental agenda and in particular to UK plans to combat global warming.
Mr Huhne defended the Chancellor against allegations that he showed scant enthusiasm and for the environment in his Autumn Statement this week, and indeed, used language verging on the contemptuous.
"The Chancellor has pointed out, he's told me very, very clearly, he is absolutely committed to dealing with the problem of climate change, precisely because he is convinced by the science," Mr Huhne said. "He is not in the position of somebody like Nigel Lawson [former Chancellor Lord Lawson of Blaby] who is clearly sceptical about the science."
Leaders of Britain's major environmental groups have discussed between themselves in recent days the "problem" of Mr Osborne, who is being regarded more and more as a powerful obstructive influence – not to say a destructive one – on Britain's green agenda.
The Chancellor is increasingly seen as pulling the strings of other Cabinet ministers such as Eric Pickles, the Communities and Local Government Secretary, over planning reform, and Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, over green regulation and the sell-off of wildlife sites.
Mr Osborne's description this week of the Habitats Regulations, Britain's leading wildlife protection laws, as placing "ridiculous" costs on business, and his declared intent to shake them up, were strongly resented, and the Chancellor risks becoming the first major political hate figure for environmentalists since Nicholas Ridley, Margaret Thatcher's free-marketeering Environment Minister, more than 20 years ago.
"A love of the natural world is deeply rooted in our country – and so for George Osborne to pledge to ditch the most important laws that protect the crown jewels of our countryside is politically toxic, and suggests he learned nothing from the woodland sell-off fiasco," John Sauven, the executive director of Greenpeace, said yesterday.
He added: "The Prime Minister has long articulated how a strong economy and protection of the environment can go hand in hand through investment in the clean industries of the future.
"In contrast, Osborne now seems to be suggesting that wildlife and a healthy environment are bad for business. David Cameron will now need to intervene to ensure that environmental destruction is not the price that Britain pays because of Osborne's outdated economic thinking."
Martin Harper, conservation director of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), said: "Tuesday's Autumn Statement was a tipping point. It is clear the Chancellor has no regard for sustainable development or investing in the green economy."
By contrast, Mr Huhne's publication of the revised UK Carbon Plan is sending a clear signal to nearly 200 countries gathered at the UN Climate Conference in Durban, South Africa, that a major industrialised nation such as Britain still thinks it is right, necessary and possible to embark on a major long-term project to slash greenhouse gas emissions – in Britain's case, by an ultimate 80 per cent on the 1990 baseline by 2050. "Britain is walking the walk," Mr Huhne said.
Not many British Cabinet ministers have the distinction of being burned in effigy by their own supporters, but Margaret Thatcher's sometime Environment Minister and political ally Nicholas Ridley did – by Hampshire Tories in 1988, in a row over house-building in the countryside.
Chain-smoking, acerbic, wholly unsympathetic to the green agenda and widely loathed, he was eventually replaced by Mrs Thatcher (with Chris Patten) after the Green Party captured 15 per cent of the vote in the 1989 European Parliamentary Election.