Leading article: Labour is right to be nervous of its record

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The Independent Online

While the Blairs sun themselves in Egypt, and the Government dozes, the Tories are busy. Mr Blair's opposite number, David Cameron, has used the Prime Minister's holiday to pull off one Christmas coup after another. Hot on the heels of the media-savvy decision to lure Bob Geldof on to the Tories' commission on global poverty - unusual territory for them - Mr Cameron has set his sights on another fortress in the Labour camp: the environment. In the new year he is to deliver a keynote address at the 60th anniversary of the Soil Association, an organisation close to the organic food lobby.

Whether this new interest in green matters marks a change of heart in the party of big business and laissez-faire economics is open to question. But Mr Cameron has clearly earmarked the environment as vulnerable territory. Before dismissing this as a publicity stunt, consider the words of the Tories' new man in charge of environmental policy, Zac Goldsmith. In interviews that must be raising hackles among many Tory supporters, he says he has no intention of becoming a "mouthpiece" for business, condemns what he calls government cowardice on genetically modified food and supermarkets which bully farmers, and rails against "building ever more roads, ever more airports". These are strange days in the Tory party.

But why not try out new clothes and see if they fit, especially when it is so clear that Labour has fallen out of love with the environmental activists who backed the party in 1997? Only recently, Mr Blair antagonised them yet again by rushing out an announced review of energy policy, which doubtless is going to smooth the path for a new generation of nuclear power stations. He long ago dumped Labour's commitments to limit car use, road building and airport expansion, while John Prescott's plans for a massive expansion in house-building have angered many who feel that greenfield sites are being offered up too easily in the name of affordable housing.

And just as Mr Blair has slammed his door in the face of the green NGOs, Mr Cameron throws his door wide open in a canny but predictable move from a man who made his career in public relations. The question still arises, however, whether the Tories can make the inroads they want into the wristband generation without offending their traditional voters. It all smacks of riding two horses at once.

But Labour should not draw much comfort from that. They have alienated a powerful if inchoate force in modern British society, and if Mr Cameron's initiative forces them to take environmentalist concerns more seriously it will have done some good.