Tory battle for net zero increasingly driving Conservative MPs to factionalism

Jeremy Hunt is latest pro net zero MP to join group of ‘green Tories’ who now make up half of party’s backbenchers

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Wednesday 30 March 2022 12:04 BST
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<p>Red, white and blue flag, green Tory. Jeremy Hunt is the 133rd Tory MP to join the  Conservative Environment Network </p>

Red, white and blue flag, green Tory. Jeremy Hunt is the 133rd Tory MP to join the Conservative Environment Network

The government’s legally-binding goal of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is winning increasing support, and spawning furious dissent  – both from within the Conservative Party.

While the promotion of renewable energy has not always been in the Tories’ DNA, an increasing number of backbench MPs are now signing up to become members of the Conservative Environment Network (CEN).

The latest to join the group is former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has become the 133rd backbench MP to become a member.

While there are a total of 360 Conservative MPs, 95 are ineligible to join the group because they are government ministers or whips. Nonetheless, Mr Hunt’s support means the group includes a third of the Conservative Party in the House of Commons, and half of its backbenchers.

The group says it was instrumental in securing the commitment to legislate for net zero in 2019, when Theresa May was prime minister, with then-CEN MP Simon Clarke leading the public letter signed by 192 MPs from across the Commons.

Mr Hunt said: “Now more than ever, in light of the global gas crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it’s vital we decarbonise the UK’s economy by 2050.

“We must develop more homegrown clean energy, including renewables and new nuclear. This will lower people’s bills, strengthen our energy security and avoid the worst consequences of climate change.”

Sam Hall, director of the CEN, said: “There can be no doubt that the Conservative backbenches remain resolutely committed to the party’s clear manifesto commitments on the environment and to delivering net zero in a way that is fair and affordable, supports levelling up, and strengthens our national security.”

As well as the 133 MPs, a further 17 members of the House of Lords brings the group’s parliamentary membership up to 150.

But the surge in numbers of MPs joining the group comes amid a growing tussle within the Conservative Party on the issue of the climate crisis and the UK’s energy and environment policies.

Alongside the CEN, or overlapping it, is another pro-climate action group, the Net Zero Support Group, chaired by MP and former minister Chris Skidmore. This group is believed to have around 30 MPs on board, according to Politico.

But the expanding level of Conservative support for reaching the government’s goal, which aims to slash the greenhouse gas emissions causing the worsening climate crisis, comes amid rumblings of discontent from other right wing groups.

Several other Conservative MPs are signed up to what is in essence an opposition faction, called the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, which now claims to have 58 Conservative MPs on board, who are critical of the drive towards decarbonisation, and have spuriously cited the cost of living crisis as a concern for reducing climate action.

This group has been accused of “misinformation and propaganda” by climate scientists, and has links to the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which has routinely touted climate denial and pseudoscience.

It is run by Craig Mackinlay, the Conservative MP for South Thanet in Kent, and its members include Steve Baker – an outspoken opponent to climate action, whose Wycombe constituents recently set up a group called "Steve Baker Watch" due to their concern over his environmental record. Other members include Lord Peter Lilley and the MPs Philip Davies, Esther McVey, Robert Halfon, Julian Knight and Anne Marie Morris.

According to climate website Desmog, Mr Davies and Lord Lilley, previously a Cabinet minister, were among just five MPs to vote against the UK’s Climate Change Act in 2008, a groundbreaking piece of legislation that saw the UK become the first country to put emissions reductions targets in law.

The group has said the energy crisis means green taxes should be cut and is pushing for an increase in fossil fuel production, including fracking.

Beyond the Conservative Party, Nigel Farage and Richard Tice – who backed Mr Farage’s Brexit Party, and was a ​​founder and co-chairman of the pro-Brexit campaign groups Leave.EU and Leave Means Leave – have announced a somewhat stalling campaign calling for a referendum on the UK’s net zero commitments, and urging the government to allow fracking in Britain.

CEN director Mr Hall said Mr Farage’s call for a referendum would "waste time and cash", and set out why pro-environmental policies would help boost the UK economy.

He told The Independent: "Every Conservative MP was elected on a manifesto promising to deliver net zero. The government has a clear mandate - and democratic responsibility - to decarbonise the UK economy in line with that commitment. With clear support from the public for climate action, there is no need to waste time and taxpayers’ cash on a referendum.

"Achieving net zero will win the UK new clean industries, create good paying jobs and help level up our industrial heartlands. While nuclear, green hydrogen and a range of other clean technologies will play a role in powering Britain, renewables like wind and solar power are the cheapest and quickest way to reduce our reliance on imported oil and gas.

"Far from undermining the case for net zero, the energy crunch and Ukraine crisis demonstrate the need to switch to cheap, clean and homegrown renewables to lower people’s bills and defund Putin’s war machine. Together with the growing movement to restore nature across Britain, this is why more MPs have joined CEN."

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