Blue Planet, Green Tories
When Theresa May stood on the steps of Downing Street 18 months ago and set out her priorities, the environment didn’t even warrant a mention. Instead she spoke about social mobility and her mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone by instilling fairness in British life. At the time, Michael Gove was in the political wilderness, having led the Brexit campaign but damaged his chances of Downing Street thanks to his botched leadership challenge to Boris Johnson.
Fast forward 18 months and while May’s mantra may be that nothing has changed, rather a lot has. Brexit has dominated everything, the Conservatives fought a weak election campaign and lost seats as a result, and the social mobility agenda has stalled, with the resignation of Alan Milburn as chair of the Social Mobility Commission last year, and this week’s sacking of Justine Greening as Education Secretary. Meanwhile Gove has enjoyed a steady political rehabilitation, taking on the Environment Secretary post last summer – usually not a department for ambitious politicians – with a gusto few could have anticipated.
Call it the Blue Planet effect, call it his awakening to a mission to save the dolphins, or call it a canny political move, but the threat from single-use plastic has become a core plank of Gove’s agenda. As this issue has crept up the agenda in recent months and attracted ever more media interest, Gove has become a fervent ambassador for saving the whales; stating in his Party Conference speech that ‘plastic pollution has been slowly choking our oceans’ and that there is a need to act before fish and bird life is devastated. Since then we have had a call for evidence on a deposit return scheme – an approach wildly popular with the likes of Greenpeace – and a Budget pledge for a call for evidence on how the tax system or charges could reduce the amount of single-use plastics waste.
Now, after a botched reshuffle, May has chosen to start the year with a speech on single-use plastics and the publication of a 25 year environmental strategy, which includes pledges on recycling, a commitment to extend the 5p plastic bag charge to small retailers, and support for new refill points for people to top-up water bottles for free in every major city. Gove’s mission has, apparently, become hers too.
The strategy itself is typically vague, and there has already been criticism over the fact that there is no plan to underpin it with legislation, and likewise of the lengthy timescale it offers. Nevertheless, it shows a remarkable sea change to see the Government using green issues to score points with voters. The days of David Cameron posing with huskies seemed long gone when the Conservatives left key environmental pledges out of the 2017 manifesto, not least by supporting a free vote on fox hunting and leaving out a ban on the ivory trade – another issue on which we have seen a sharp U-turn in recent months.
It’s easy to understand why May and her team are enthusiastically embracing the environment, given that analysis has suggested the party’s stance on this was a key vote-loser amongst young people in June 2017. Nor, at a time when Government wins are few are far between, is it unexpected to see her and others trumpet the success of the plastic bag levy, as she did on the Andrew Marr show last weekend, given that it has had significant success in reducing usage. The inconvenient truth that this was initially a Lib Dem policy brought in by the Coalition Government is hardly the point.
But is notable that, after years spent bitterly at loggerheads while Cameron and Osborne were in charge, May and Gove’s fortunes are now closely tied together. Few are predicting Gove could be the leader to take the party into the 2022 election – on the Today Programme he was playing up Gavin Williamson and Damian Hinds as contenders – although stranger things have happened. But it’s clear that he is a driving force in the current Government, and that May is having to swallow her pride and allow him to push his chosen causes in return for whatever political capital they offer her.
In July 2016, such a turn of events would have seemed very unlikely – just another example of the unpredictability of British politics these days.
Lexington works with a number of clients in the environmental sector, most recently supporting the Stop Ivory campaign and working with BRITA UK on the campaign against single-use plastics. For more information about Lexington’s offer in this area, or guidance on responding to the 25 year environmental strategy, contact Jennifer.firstname.lastname@example.org