Michael Gove on Sunday warned his colleagues against “treating the cause of the environment as a religious crusade” while Jacob Rees-Mogg said the Tories had a “real chance” at the next election if they rowed back on green policies.
But Zac Goldsmith, the former minister who quit the government over Rishi Sunak’s climate policies, said it would be “cynical and idiotic” to scrap climate and other environment measures on the back of a single by-election result.
It comes after the Conservatives narrowly held a by-election in the outer London seat of Uxbridge, overcoming expectations after a campaign centred around opposing an upcoming extension of the Ultra-low emission zone.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan is extending the zone from the end of August and says it will improve air quality for five million Londoners by charging those with the most polluting to enter the city limits.
Despite polls showing strong support for the scheme across London it is less popular in outer London, especially among Tory voters who Labour targeted in Uxbridge.
Now the result has prompted some Tories to consider whether the environment could be their route to denying Keir Starmer a majority at an election next year.
“I don’t think Labour are alive to this at all,” housing secretary Mr Gove said in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.
“If people think that you are treating the cause of the environment as a religious crusade, in which you’re dividing the world into goodies and baddies, then you alienate the support that you need for thoughtful environmentalism.”
But speaking to the Observer newspaper, Mr Goldsmith said it would be “politically suicidal” to ditch environmental policies given their “very deep and wide support”.
“Byelection results can be interpreted in countless ways, and it is the nature of politicians and political commentators to wedge their own prejudices into the outcomes,” he said.
“But to use these recent results to advocate abandonment of the UK’s previous environmental leadership is cynical and idiotic.”
When Lord Goldsmith resigned at the end of June he noted that the government has already ditched a flagship animal welfare bill and abandoned its pledge to spend £11.6bn of UK aid on climate and environment.
Mr Gove, who next week is set to propose new reforms to increase housebuilding on Monday, said the recommendations from the government’s climate advisors “run so far ahead of where people are, particularly during a cost of living crisis, that you risk ending up creating a backlash rather than a consensus”.
Meanwhile on Sunday, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former business secretary, said the lesson from the Conservative win in Uxbridge and South Ruislip was that “what works is getting rid of unpopular, expensive green policies”.
“I think Uxbridge is really interesting and important because if we get rid of things like Ulez, which have popped up across the country, and we show we are on the side of the British voter – we stop burdening them with extra charges, extra regulations, extra interference in their lives – then I think there is a real chance,” he said.
Sir Jacob said by-elections “don’t necessarily predict what is going to happen in a general election” but instead give an “opportunity for governments to think about what they are doing and see what works and what doesn’t”.
But local government minister Lee Rowley said the Conservative government would not be abandoning its green pledges
“No, we still have the objective of treading more lightly on the earth,” Mr Rowley told Times Radio.
“I think everybody agrees with that; I think it is a very sensible thing to do. We have set a series of targets, very ambitious targets to get to 2050.
“But what I think Uxbridge shows is that we have to do this in a careful manner, a manner over the course of several decades – and we have to take people with us.”
The government has had a number of rows since 2010 about how far to go on the environment, with David Cameron once memorably telling colleagues to cut the “green crap”.
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