Climate crisis: Michael Gove tipped to lead preparations for showpiece COP26 summit

Former Tory leaders David Cameron and William Hague turn down approaches to take charge of global event

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Wednesday 05 February 2020 14:46 GMT
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Jeremy Corbyn attacks Boris Johnson over climate change summit

Michael Gove is believed to be in pole position to be put in charge of the UK’s hosting of a crucial climate change summit, after Boris Johnson decided the job must go to a minister.

The decision to go for a government big-hitter was made after two of the prime minister’s predecessors as Conservative leader, David Cameron and William Hague, turned down approaches to be president of the United Nations COP26 summit in Glasgow.

It is understood that the pair were sounded out about the job before Christmas, in an indication that Mr Johnson was already concerned about the leadership of Claire Perry O’Neill, who he sacked this week.

The prime minister is now expected to appoint a minister to the post as part of a cabinet reshuffle next week, with a Downing Street source saying he would choose “someone who is a big hitter and able to handle themselves on the international stage”.

Ms O’Neill, a former energy minister, was scathing about the PM’s handling of preparations for the high-profile global summit, complaining of a “huge lack of leadership and engagement from this government”.

She claimed that Mr Johnson had admitted to her that he did not really understand climate change.

The showpiece summit in November Suis currently mired in controversy not only over Ms O’Neill’s departure but also over claims that Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been frozen out of planning.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn went on the attack on Mr Johnson in the House of Commons today, accusing the PM of “failing spectacularly” to measure up to the scale of the climate emergency.

And he taunted the PM with the suggestion that he might be forced to turn to a third former Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, to fill the vacant role.

Labour later suggested Mr Corbyn’s predecessor as party leader, former climate change secretary Mr Miliband, would be a good choice to replace O’Neill.

Ed Miliband is certainly someone who has a strong record and would be an entirely suitable person,” Mr Corbyn’s spokesman said.

“The issue is not exactly who should take on the role, but that it’s somebody with credibility. The performance we have seen in the last day or two over this subject is just a reflection of the fact that Boris Johnson is not serious about the climate crisis.”

Mr Johnson dismissed criticisms of the government’s record on climate as “beyond satire”, telling MPs: “If you look at what this government is achieving and already has achieved on climate change, it is quite phenomenal.”

Ed Miliband
Ed Miliband (Getty)

Mr Gove is not thought to have been lobbying for the COP job and no final decision is believed to have been made.

But he already has responsibility for aspects of the summit preparations in his current Cabinet Office role, and his successful stint as environment secretary has fuelled speculation among MPs that Johnson has him in mind.

One backbencher described him as "the obvious choice" while others said he may instead be angling for a role in post-Brexit trade negotiations with the EU.

Downing Street declined to comment on the identity of the new COP president.

Asked whether Mr Johnson would consider Mr Miliband for the post, the No 10 source replied: “I did make points about needing to be someone who is a big hitter and can handle themselves on the international stage. I don’t think I need to go any further than that.”

Mr Cameron said that the role of COP26 president should be filled by a serving member of the government.

“It was an honour to be asked to do that job and I’m very grateful to have been asked,” said the former PM.

“But I think it’s best in these situations if you have a government minister doing the job; you then have one line of command rather than, perhaps, two people doing the same thing.”

Claire Perry O’Neill
Claire Perry O’Neill (Getty)

He added: “I wish the government well, I wish this climate change conference well, because it’s absolutely vital.

“I’m sure that there will be a government minister, or someone, who will be able to do the job and do it very well. The government has my backing as they go forward.”

The UN climate talks, to be held in Glasgow in November, are the most important since the Paris Agreement to curb global warming was secured in 2015.

Countries are expected to deliver more ambitious domestic plans for cutting greenhouse gases by 2030, as current proposals are not enough to prevent dangerous temperature rises.

Pressure is also on countries to set out long-term plans for cutting emissions, with the science now clear that the world must reduce greenhouse gases to zero in a matter of decades to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

The run-up to the talks will require a major diplomatic effort from the UK to secure ambitious climate action from countries – at a time when Britain is also negotiating trade agreements with the EU and other nations.

There was no immediate response from Mr Miliband’s office to questions over whether he would be interested in the role.

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