Andrew Grice: Summit poses possible headache for Tory leader

Climate change really is an issue that can split conservatives around the world

Wednesday 02 December 2009 01:00 GMT

When David Cameron hugged a husky on his landmark visit to a Norwegian glacier in 2006, the environmental lobby embraced him with equal enthusiasm. Now, as the prospect of a Tory government looms large, green groups wonder whether Mr Cameron is getting cold feet.

One of their concerns is an apparently widening gulf between the Tory leadership and the party's MPs, MEPs and grassroots members over climate change. Officially, the Tory opposition "unequivocally" supports the Government at the crucial global summit in Copenhagen starting next week and says that the British stance would be the same if the Tories win power.

Yet there are growing signs that, as prime minister, Mr Cameron would face a battle with his own party to translate his "vote blue, go green" slogan into policy. For some Tory MPs, the world recession has tipped the scales against expensive measures to combat global warming which could put a brake on future growth. Others have become more sceptical after reading the work of scientists who refuse to accept the broad consensus in their community about climate change.

The doubters are believed to extend to a few members of Mr Cameron's shadow Cabinet, although they are bound by the rules of collective responsibility and cannot speak out.

"Climate change really is an issue that can split conservative parties around the world," said Tim Montgomerie, editor of the ConservativeHome website. He is a sceptic – like all the others voted among the "top 10 Tory bloggers". He believes the vibrant Tory blogsphere on the issue reflects the doubts among a majority of Tory MPs, parliamentary candidates and grassroots members. "The core of the party is very sceptical," he said.

Mr Montgomerie argues that the Tory party tolerates Mr Cameron's approach to green issues – a crucial element in his rebranding of the party – but does not share it. Surveys have shown that only one in five Tory MPs shares the leader's view that climate change is a top priority. A ConservativeHome poll of Tory candidates in winnable seats found that 14 per cent are "most concerned" about climate change. Four times as many – 59 per cent – are more concerned about terrorism, while 25 per cent are concerned about both issues equally.

The tensions the issue can cause have been illustrated in Australia, where Malcolm Turnbull, leader of the opposition Liberal Party, the main centre-right party, was ousted yesterday after promising to support the Labour Government's Bill on climate change.

The Copenhagen summit poses a potential headache for the Tory leader and comes at a tricky moment. There are signs that the commanding Tory lead in the opinion polls has narrowed, with two surveys, including the ComRes poll in The Independent yesterday, pointing to a hung Parliament. Mr Cameron had to apologise for a factual error in his claim over public funding for Muslim schools with alleged links to extremist groups. Questions are being asked about how the Tory high command allowed Zac Goldsmith, the prominent green campaigner and Tory candidate for Richmond Park, to keep his tax status as a non-domicile when the party was committed to a crackdown on "non-doms".

Greg Clark, the shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary, will attend the Copenhagen talks but Mr Cameron will not be there. Gordon Brown most definitely will. Although a legally-binding deal looks beyond reach, a political agreement would still be a prize and the Prime Minister may now get a share of the credit for saving the planet as well as the world's banks. He was the first leader to commit to attending the summit. Now more than 80 other leaders will go, including President Barack Obama.

The Tory radar sensed danger and the party launched a pre-emptive strike last week: a blitz of speeches on the environment by seven shadow Cabinet members including Mr Cameron, William Hague and George Osborne, who suggested that householders could get "shopping vouchers" worth £130 a year to recycle their rubbish.

It is clear that the Tories are trying to broaden the debate beyond the targets for cutting carbon emissions that will dominate the Copenhagen agenda. The aim is to unite both their party – and the wider public – behind practical measures that will not cripple economies and enjoy wider support.

Mr Clark believes there is a growing consensus among three groups that come to the debate from different directions: the green lobby; people worried about security of energy supplies (who do not want to become dependent on Russian imports); and those with concerns about economic competitiveness.

The shadow Climate Change Secretary is winning some plaudits for his "positive environmentalism" from sceptics such as Mr Montgomerie, raising hopes that the Tories can square the circle and remain broadly united.

Mr Cameron is calling the shots and holds the whip hand – for now, at least. He said last month: "There is now widespread agreement about the nature and scale of the threat posed by climate change. Of course, there will always be some who deny the science and the scope of the threat posed. They say 90 per cent certainty is not good enough.

"But that is not a justification for inaction. I say to them, would you ask your children to live in a house which 90 per cent of the experts told you was going to burn down?"

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