The next generation of Conservative MPs do not share David Cameron's enthusiasm for making climate change a priority for a Conservative government, according to a survey to be published tomorrow.
The poll of 141 Tory candidates in winnable seats found that "reducing Britain's carbon footprint" was rated the lowest of 19 possible priorities for a Cameron government. The finding is embarrassing for the Tory leader, whose strong personal commitment to the environment has become a symbol of his drive to modernise the party.
The survey by the ConservativeHome website suggests that if he becomes prime minister, Mr Cameron could face a major rebellion by his own backbenchers if he tries to take a lead on climate change on the domestic or international stage.
Some Tory insiders are describing the issue as "the new Europe" for the party. Tim Montgomerie, editor of ConservativeHome, said: "Europe has divided the Tories since the late 1980s. Could climate change cause similar problems?" He warned that many prominent Tories doubted the science of man-made global warming and many more middle-of-the-road pragmatists worried about the costs of pursuing "mitigation" policies.
They were concerned about rising energy bills in Western countries and feared that economic growth in India and China would not reverse trends in climate that are well under way. "David Cameron needs to proceed cautiously on this issue if he is to keep the Conservative coalition together," he said.
The Independent revealed in December that Mr Cameron was at odds with some Tory MPs, peers and MEPs who are climate change sceptics. Now, it seems, many would-be Tory MPs who hope to join the "class of 2010" candidates share their reservations about the party leader's stance.
ConservativeHome asked Tory candidates to rate 19 policy issues on a scale of one to five, with five being the most important. Only eight of the 141 Tory candidates who responded gave climate change five marks, the lowest number for any issue.
Last night Labour claimed that Mr Cameron's ability to pursue climate change on the world stage if he won power could be wrecked by his own party's scepticism about the issue. But Cameron aides declared that his stance on the environment would prevail if he becomes prime minister. "This is and will remain an important priority," one insisted.
Reducing the deficit in the public finances was regarded as the top priority issue by most Tory candidates (112) followed by cutting red tape (73), reducing welfare bills (59) and winning trust on the NHS (50).
Europe appears to have slipped down the priority list; winning powers back from the European Union was regarded as important by 45 of the 141 candidates. Only 42 thought reducing the level of immigration a priority. With the prospect of tax cuts receding because of the deficit, only 45 regarded them as important.
Tory candidates do not appear to share Mr Cameron's desire to reward marriage in the tax system, with only 33 regarding "marriage and the family" as a priority issue. This policy has become a headache for Mr Cameron. He has promised it would be implemented before the election after next, but bringing in transferable tax allowances to help stay-at-home mothers would cost £4.9bn.
A possible compromise was proposed yesterday by the Centre for Social Justice led by Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, which previously favoured transferable allowances for all married couples. In a Green Paper, the group said its original plan was unrealistic in the current financial climate. Instead, it recommended transferable allowances for married couples who have children up to the age of three. That would cost only £600m and would benefit these families by about £20 a week.