Policy confusion is fascinating to witness in a political party – it's rather like seeing a child playing blind man's buff and continually bumping into things – and the latest political collision with the sofa occurred on Friday with an announcement from Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State for Environment and the person the public angrily perceives as the seller-off of England's state forests.
The sale of nearly 100,000 acres of publicly owned woodlands was being postponed, Mrs Spelman announced, so that post-sale guarantees for public access could be "significantly strengthened". This statement was actually much less, and much more, than it seemed. Most people, unfamiliar with the fine detail of policy, might well have seen it as a major U-turn, as the beginning of the end of the controversial big forests sell-off; by no means. The consultation exercise on the full sale of nearly 650,000 acres of publicly owned forests continues unaffected; the sale postponed on Friday was merely the annual disposal of up to 15 per cent of its estate which the Forestry Commission is allowed to do in the normal course of its buying and selling of woodlands, and which was going ahead anyway.
Yet if it was less than it appeared, it was also more. The fascinating thing is this: the announcement was entirely unexpected, and the Government had no need to make it. It is clear that it was indeed made to give the public the impression that the whole forestry sell-off was undergoing a rethink, with the aim of taking the heat out of the row and buying some political breathing space. It was a classic Whitehall Panic Measure.
And it is not the first, in the recent unravelling of the Government's policy towards the natural environment. A week last Friday Mrs Spelman proclaimed, in that classic forum for important Government disclosures, a tea-time email to The Sunday Telegraph newsdesk, that England's state-run national nature reserves "would remain in the public sector". Most people had no idea that they might not; but the Government had for months been covertly pursuing a policy of getting rid of them too, and was freaked into abandoning their divestment by the forests row. (What is actually going to happen to the nature reserves now, no one has a clue – ministers least of all.)
When a Government starts hastily backtracking on its own policy like this, something has obviously gone wrong with its joined-up thinking, and this is the case here. For the Tories, the single most politically damaging aspect of the storm of opposition stirred up over the forests sale – half a million signatures against it – is that it makes a nonsense of David Cameron's personal pledge, issued on 14 May last, that this will be "the greenest government ever". (You can almost hear the clipped phone conversation between the No 10 adviser and Mrs Spelman's private office: "The Prime Minister wants this sorted out now.") How then, could Mr Cameron, or Mrs Spelman, or anyone else in Government, not see this coming?
The answer is that this Government has conflated "the environment" with climate change; the rest is forgotten (at least at the highest level). It was actually in the specific context of global warming policy that Mr Cameron made his "greenest ever" pledge. He saw, rightly, that saving the climate is of overwhelming importance; but he failed to see that there are other green issues, such as the care of the natural world, which are also immensely important and which the public may deem crucial.
To be fair, being blinded to everything else by climate change is not the fault of this Government only; some of the traditional green pressure groups have followed suit, and Jonathon Porritt, doyen of green activists, pointed out in an angry blog last week how little most of them have done to combat the attack on nature conservation. But the Government will have to wake up to its mistake, or its pledge to be the greenest ever will turn out to be the biggest hostage to fortune of its time in office.Reuse content