Geoffrey Lean: Suddenly green is good for a philosopher prime minister

Defender of cars and GM food, Blair now sees environmental issues as central to Labour's ideology

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Qay back in the early summer of Labour's post-election honeymoon, Tony Blair held one of his first private meetings as Prime Minister with a group of leading greens. As they talked in the sun in his new Downing Street garden he assured them: "The environment is the coming issue for this government."

Qay back in the early summer of Labour's post-election honeymoon, Tony Blair held one of his first private meetings as Prime Minister with a group of leading greens. As they talked in the sun in his new Downing Street garden he assured them: "The environment is the coming issue for this government."

Well, maybe, just maybe, it now is. But it has been a jolly long time coming. Despite the early promise, and strenuous work by environment ministers - the issue has had no place in Mr Blair's personal philosophy or in his plans for modernising Britain. Indeed, he himself has been the main obstacle to the greening of his administration.

Now, those close to him say that he's finally about to change. In late October he is to make the first green speech of his premiership to an audience brought together by the CBI and the Green Alliance. This, they add, is to be part of a green offensive that will finally enshrine the issue, as Mr Blair once promised, at "the heart of government".

The campaign is scheduled to open this month at the Labour Party conference which is expected to endorse a new 12-point green plan, including action to preserve wildlife, more money for wind and solar power and energy conservation, higher targets for recycling waste, and a strategy to reduce noise. It will continue in October with a major speech to a Greenpeace conference by Stephen Byers, who has already made surprising progress greening his Department of Trade and Industry, traditionally Whitehall's most recalcitrant.

Increased measures to combat global warming and two white papers setting out policies for the cities and the countryside will follow.

It all sounds promising enough, if long overdue. Better late than never, you may say. True enough. But the Prime Minister will still have to overcome much scepticism, for we have all been here before.

Mr Blair made his only previous green speech back in February 1996, while still in opposition. Speaking, again, to the environmentalist Green Alliance and industry, he announced that "the environment is at the heart of New Labour's political agenda" and promised that it would not be "pigeon-holed" in the environment department. He added: "This will not simply be a one-off speech. It will be followed up with commitment in opposition. Much more important than that, if we are elected, it will be delivered upon in government."

None of that happened. Until now the speech has indeed been a one-off. There was precious little follow-up in opposition, and green issues scarcely figured in Labour's election manifesto.

And though John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, and, especially, Michael Meacher, the Environment Minister, have done well, the issue has remained firmly pigeon-holed in their eco-friendly glass department near Victoria Station. Indeed the Prime Minister has personally swooped like a hawk on most of the fledgling plans that have fluttered out of it.

He and his entourage emasculated Mr Prescott's plans for curbing the car and promoting public transport and blocked for months Mr Meacher's popular proposals for the right to roam. Mr Blair has been the Government's principal enthusiast for GM foods and the chief cheerleader for the building of Turkey's controversial Ilusu dam. He remains obstinately committed to reprocessing nuclear fuel at Sellafield when even its overseas customers and Britain's own nuclear industry have turned against it.

But there are indeed now signs that his approach is beginning to change. Last month he bravely appointed Jonathon Porritt - a former leader both of the Green Party and of Friends of the Earth (the pressure group the Prime Minister most hates) - as his high-profile environmental adviser. And at the G8 summit in Okinawa in July, he led the attack on the expansion of Japanese whaling, persuaded his fellow leaders to avoid using illegally felled timber from tropical rain forests, and successfully proposed a top-level study on increasing renewable energy in the Third World.

Surprisingly, his new emphasis on the environment is not driven by vote-catching. Although polls show that a third of Britons say the issue is "very important" in determining their vote - far more than cite defence, Europe, or even taxation - Mr Blair does not believe it makes that much difference at the booths.

He is more worried about being wrong-footed by an environmental crisis as the election approaches, not surprisingly since most of the issues that have taken the Government by surprise - whether GM foods, transport, the countryside or Sellafield - have been green ones.

But the main attraction is ideological. For Mr Blair still aspires to be a philosophical Prime Minister. He has been persuaded - most notably by Michael Jacobs, the director-general of the Fabian Society - that the environment fits well into the New Labour approach, and should be an integral part of his much-vaunted "project".

Mr Blair's speech, if it is to carry any conviction must show conclusively that he has accepted this. If he claims to be an environmentalist, people will just laugh. If he relies on boasting about his Environment Minister's record, they will just sense more spin. But if he speaks as a natural sceptic, who is beginning finally to realise that the environment is essential to his plans, he will carry conviction.

He should convince his largely business audience that he understands that, as Sir John Browne, the chairman of BP, says, green measures make "perfect business sense". Environmental technologies - like renewable energy, shamefully neglected by the Government, provide vast new business opportunities and should be the key to modernising the economy. They also employ many more people than the dirty ones they replace.

He should show that he understands that environmental initiatives promote, rather than hinder, progress - and indeed that they provide it free of guilt over increasing pollution, ravished ecologies, and a deteriorating quality of life. He should demonstrate that he realises green issues lie at the heart of his concerns about health and social inclusion: the poor always suffer the most from pollution. He should show that he has finally grasped that proper concern for the environment makes life better, not worse.

But he must also go beyond philosophy to announcing action. Here Michael Portillo's crass assault on the government's measures to tackle global warming last week has provided him with an open goal. This is one area where Mr Blair can indeed be proud of his record: he played an important part in convincing President Clinton about global warming, and in securing international agreement to tackle it in Kyoto three years ago.

But now the Kyoto agreement is in peril. Key nations, like the USA and Japan, are trying to back out of it. A conference designed to draw up measures to implement it, scheduled for the Hague in November, seems set to fail. Mr Blair should use his considerable international authority by campaigning openly for urgent and effective action to tackle this most serious of all environmental threats.

All this joins seamlessly with the rest of the Government's programme and philosophy. If the Prime Minister articulates it, he will demonstrate that the environment is at last arriving at its rightful place - as he himself promised in his last speech nearly five years ago - "within the space at the heart of our basic ideology".

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