Conservative leader wins cautious green support

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David Cameron was warned by green pressure groups yesterday that he will have to end the Tory party's "institutional hostility" to Europe if he wants to be taken seriously on the issue of climate change.

The Tory leader won praise from environmental groups yesterday as he made a brave attempt to outflank the other party leaders on issues related to the "quality of life'

But they warned that hard policy choices lie ahead. The Conservatives will have to decide whether to tone down their traditional championship of the private motorist, and risk upsetting supporters in industries that contribute to global warming.

Mr Cameron only slightly blotted his copybook by arriving at the meeting in a gas-guzzling Vauxhall Omega, a government car supplied to him in his role as Leader of the Opposition. He excused himself by saying that he frequently cycles to work, or takes the bus or train, but yesterday his crowded schedule forced him to go by car. He is hoping to swap the Vauxhall for a more environmentally friendly model.

At the London Wetland Centre, a huge bird sanctuary on the south bank of the Thames across from Fulham, he had a private talk with leaders of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and others.

He told them that environmental issues could not be tackled effectively during the four or five years between general elections. "We've got to take these things out of politics and agree them between the parties," he said.

He was sitting alongside Zac Goldsmith, billionaire son of Sir James Goldsmith, creator of the Referendum Party. The younger Mr Goldsmith has agreed to serve with the former Environment Secretary, John Gummer, as deputy head of Mr Cameron's new "quality of life" policy group.

Afterwards, Mr Goldsmith, 30, singled out The Independent as one of the driving forces behind the rethinking of Tory policy.

"The fact that The Independent has run so many very serious and rule-breaking front pages on the environment has given David Cameron the encouragement to take up this issue seriously. A few years ago, it wouldn't have been thought of as a good way to sell a newspaper to put the environment on the front, and it wouldn't have been a good idea for a Conservative Party leader to take it so seriously."

The environmentalists who took part in the meeting said they were impressed by Mr Cameron's apparent determination to tackle the issues. Stephen Tindale, of Greenpeace, said: "We impressed upon him the need to reposition the Conservative Party. He will have to go on about the needs of motorist less, and to end the institutional hostility to Europe."

Martin Spray, chief executive of the Wetlands Trust, warned: "Our job in Europe is to set an example and export best practice. We certainly aren't going to do that as the UK not working with the rest of Europe."

Mike Childs, campaign head at Friends of the Earth, said: "The Government is very vulnerable to the charge that they have talked the talk but absolutely failed to walk the walk."

But the environment minister, Ben Bradshaw, said: "The Tories may have woken up to the fact that people care about these issues but they continue to oppose many of the policies that are necessary to deliver real change."