We need to see evidence of Mr Blair's conversion to the Green cause

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Well, at least he said it. The real importance of Tony Blair's wide-ranging and much-trailed speech on the environment yesterday lay in the fact that he made it at all. For a man who famously promised to put environment at the heart of government, Mr Blair has spent three and a half years in office seeming to ignore it conspicuously; he has talked of education, education, education and of crime and the causes of crime.

Well, at least he said it. The real importance of Tony Blair's wide-ranging and much-trailed speech on the environment yesterday lay in the fact that he made it at all. For a man who famously promised to put environment at the heart of government, Mr Blair has spent three and a half years in office seeming to ignore it conspicuously; he has talked of education, education, education and of crime and the causes of crime.

But on matters Green there has been hardly a sparrow's cheep out of the New Labour Prime Minister. No one, least of all this newspaper, would cavil at his concern for education, public safety and health, but sins of omission can be dire; schools, burglary and hospitals may be immediate worries, but they are ultimately dwarfed by the consequences of global climate change, by the destabilisation of the life-support systems of the one, small, beautiful planet we have to live on.

Mr Blair made some amends yesterday when he belatedly acknowledged the seriousness of threats to the environment. He defended his Government's Green record and called for a new partnership between government, environmental campaigners, and business. He gave some money away. He made the right noises. But it is a long way from here to seeing him as Green Tony.

It is instructive to compare yesterday's speech with Margaret Thatcher's speech to the Royal Society in September 1988, in which she proclaimed her conversion to the environmental agenda. The latter was a true epiphany, the blinding discovery of a conviction politician, which overnight turned the environment from being a minority to a mainstream political concern in Britain. Mr Blair's discourse, by contrast, while skilfully put together, had the feel of the researcher and the special adviser all over it. Isn't it time you made a speech on the environment, Prime Minister? It was dead at heart.

The problem is partly with Labour, which has always viewed environmental matters with suspicion, as if they were a Tory plot, but mainly with the man himself. Mr Blair is urban man incarnate, Homo Islingtonensis. He shows no sign of ever having been moved by a wild-flower meadow, a peregrine falcon or a tortoiseshell butterfly; he seems to have no visceral feel whatsoever for the natural world. New Labour's environmental record is actually quite good, but this owes nothing to Mr Blair; it has been achieved by following strategies put in place by the last Tory government, and also, let it be said, by the energy and commitment of the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, who has proved an outstanding success, despite Mr Blair's insistence at keeping him out of the Cabinet.

The Prime Minister himself has shown, on those rare occasions when he has intervened in environmental matters, that he is not on the side of the Greens. He is a strong defender of nuclear reprocessing, anathema to environmentalists, and despite his protestation of neutrality yesterday, he has been a firm backer of GM technology. We must wait for more evidence of Mr Blair's Green concern, for actions, before we accept he is transformed on the evidence of a single speech. But thanks for making it, Tony. And thanks for mentioning the house sparrow, a particular concern of ours. Even if it was the special adviser who included it.

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