Leading article: From blue to green

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David Cameron's passionate espousal of the environmental cause may strike some as opportunistic. But whatever his motivation - and it is an issue which he been promoting for some time - it can only be for the good that the Conservative Party is now developing its own ideas on the subject.

The group announced by the new Tory leader yesterday to research policy on the subject has in its two leading members - former environment secretary John Gummer and founder of Ecologist magazine, Zac Goldsmith - a pair of committed environmentalists of undoubted strength and imagination. It's an issue too on which David Cameron himself has come out with surprising strength. Writing in this paper a month ago he set out a policy that would tie government to specific statutory targets, reviewed annually by an independent monitoring body. He also laid down the need for regulatory and financial encouragement of alternative fuels, including biomass generation. This suggests a willingness to involve government in the marketplace to an extent at odds with his party's more general attitude to rolling back the state.

In making such a feature of the environment as a core policy area, David Cameron is playing shrewd politics. It is an easy subject on which to sound both modern and compassionate. It is also an issue on which he can outflank the Government, whose environmental credentials have been badly damaged by a too close relationship with President George Bush. The Liberal Democrats, too, will have to raise their profile if they are not to be overshadowed on a subject until now very much their own.

Of course, Mr Cameron's proposals are just ideas at this stage. The Conservatives' environment group, like the other five panels set up by Mr Cameron, are not due to report for at least 18 months, We hope this time will not be used to row back from the bolder ideas being floated now. Saving the environment is a fine soundbite, but any policy worth its salt has to tackle the more fundamental questions of curbing demand, controlling industry and promoting alternatives. New Labour, despite its protestations of concern, has always baulked at taking genuinely radical steps. Will the Tories do likewise? Possibly - but at least they have put the environment at the heart of party political debate, where it most certainly belongs.

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