Net zero tsar: Tories will lose election without strong climate policies | Chris Skidmore

The Conservatives will lose the next election unless they take climate targets seriously, the government’s own net zero tsar has said.

This week Chris Skidmore launched a 300-page review setting out what the government must do to hit its legally binding decarbonisation target of net zero emissions by 2050. It was the result of three months of intense conversations with everyone from big business to eco-activists and opponents of climate action.

Skidmore, 41, believes failure to adopt strong climate policies is bad not only for the planet but also for the Conservative party.

The MP for Kingswood in south Gloucestershire says dithering and delay could help lead to the destruction of the planet, is costing the UK its international reputation and could be deadly for the Tory party if they are outflanked by rival parties on the issue.

Skidmore believes the next election will be lost unless Rishi Sunak bucks his ideas up on climate. Though the prime minister pays lip service to net zero and often speaks of how passionately green his young daughters are, he has also greenlit a coalmine as well as new oil and gas drilling, taxed green electricity and is accused of seeming allergic to investment in renewables.

Skidmore told the Guardian: “If the Conservative party does not get behind net zero, then they will lose votes. And I’m not a psephologist, but the amount of votes that they potentially will lose is significant. I think unless the Conservatives are serious about net zero and delivering on climate action, you have a perfect storm of potentially Conservative seats being lost either to Liberal Democrats in the blue wall or to Labour in the ‘red wall’.”

While the report, which calls for more solar panels on roofs, a ban on gas boilers and the introduction of onshore windfarms, has been lauded by industry bodies, climate campaigners were disappointed it contained little on personal choices, such as flying less and eating less meat.

This was deliberate, Skidmore says, arguing that to do so would start a culture war, with climate sceptics taking advantage of potentially unpopular policies and derailing the conversation.

“There are detractors who claim that net zero is some mad eco-project or a religion. They try to spread culture wars, spread disinformation and go on about the costs to everyday people. I have tried to focus on the systems changes that need to happen, the land use strategy, better public transport, more renewable energy, rather than individual choice, you understand?

“I have had this one chance and it might be my only chance to influence net zero policy,” he says, citing other reports that have been derailed by the rightwing media after calling for climate reparations.

The quietly-spoken, proudly wonkish MP has managed to gain respect for his green interventions across political parties. This came after finding himself in a bit of a pickle late last year over whether to vote “no confidence” in his old friend, the then prime minister, Liz Truss, over her plans to lift the fracking ban.

He had known her well since 2010 and helped pen the libertarian pamphlet Britannia Unchained with Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, and Dominic Raab. In the end, he decided to risk losing the whip, tweeting that he could not in good conscience support fracking. He said he was “prepared to face the consequences of my decision”.

This move has, he thinks, helped bolster his reputation as a credible person in the climate space.

Not so for his former cabinet colleague Michael Gove, who recently signed off a coalmine in Cumbria, Skidmore thinks. He says: “The reality is, Michael Gove had a great reputation. Obviously I don’t know the individual circumstances as to why he’s taken this decision. I think it’s very regretful for him personally, because he’s thrown away that reputation that he had as a champion of the environment. But also for the UK, he’s throwing away its reputation. Coal is never going to be the answer and we lose the argument to be able to demonstrate to people what the alternative might be.”

Despite his chummy relationship with Truss, who commissioned the review, he found out this week that she has not bothered reading it.

“I saw her in the [voting] lobby last night, we had a chat,” he says. “To be honest with you, she said she’d forgotten that she even commissioned it. So I don’t think she’s taking too much interest in it.”

He looks at me hopefully and says: “She seemed sort of positive. But it’s funny really, looking back, as maybe this is the one thing that actually will exist from the Truss administration. I’m not sure anything else will survive.”

The MP has locked horns with some of his colleagues over the past year, including the trade minister, Kemi Badenoch, who once referred to net zero as an “arbitrary target” and “unilateral economic disarmament”.

When asked about his previous issue with her, he flashes a mischievous smile and flicks to a page in the review where it is clearly written “net zero is not an arbitrary target”. “Kemi’s made it into my review,” he laughs, adding that she has had a “Damascene conversion” and is now lauding the benefits of green trade in her new role.

Another noisy net zero detractor is Craig Mackinlay, MP for South Thanet, who heads the Net Zero Scrutiny Group and often claims net zero could make people “colder and poorer”.

Surprisingly, he was consulted for the review, Skidmore says. “One of the recommendations in the report is Craig’s recommendation. He wanted all new homes to be entirely net zero compliant with solar panels on roofs. So that is one of the things I’ve done in the report, which is to say we need a net zero standard.”

Soon, the government will publish its response to Skidmore’s review and whether it will take up any of his recommendations. He’s planning to lobby Sunak this weekend at his country estate, Chequers, where there will be a party for some MPs.

He may even bring up the coalmine: “I am actually invited to Chequers this weekend so I will see him there. I hope to raise the review. For me, coal is a legal issue now, it’s with the courts, it’s not going to happen, but of course if he reads the review and puts it into practice these types of decisions will not be able to happen.”

The MP is not standing for election again. He grew up in his constituency and raised his children there. But his seat is being abolished in the boundary review, and he does not want to move his young family to a new constituency. So what next?

He’s not abandoning his net zero mission – and clearly hopes to be involved in international green policy.

“I enjoy ideas. Policy. Being a politician, I sometimes find it uncomfortable like when you have to rebel and go head to head with people and personalities; it’s not really who I am. I’d like to be in a position where I can work out what are the policy frameworks we need for the future. I’m confident that we will crack climate in the same way we cracked tackling the ozone layer. I’m not one of those who believes it’s doom and gloom. I’d like to be part of the solution.”

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