Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.
As much as politicians like to pretend that they are visionary masters of a country’s destiny, the truth is that most politics is really a response to events.
In my adult life, politics has arced around three unexpected moments that shaped national discussion for the years that followed; transforming the attendant issues from second order concerns for the back end of manifestos to questions that defined Prime Ministerial priorities and shaped elections.
First, the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, where the dreadful results fuelled a reappraisal of our vulnerability to extremism and moved the subject from thoughtful Chatham House debates to front page news.
Second, the largely unpredicted global financial crisis of 2008-09, which took the politics of deficits from dry economic thinking to an argument that sustained the Conservative Party for the best part of a decade.
Third, the Brexit referendum (which cannot be compared with the first two), which brought to the boil a discussion about identity and pride in the nation state that continues today.
It is foolish to predict the next ‘big thing’ precisely; there are several that you could choose. From tax transparency and the obligations on multinational companies to the demographic timebomb of an ageing society coupled with low levels of household saving.
It is pretty likely, though, that the politics of the environment – and more precisely climate change – is going to come to the centre of debate during many of our lifetimes. If we accept this premise, then Conservatives should make sure we are at least forearmed and on the right side of the argument.
Let us not pretend that the country at large shares the intensity of the Extinction Rebellion. And let us also remember that the United Kingdom has a solid record on reducing its own greenhouse gas emissions.
But there are some structural factors bubbling away which should trouble Conservatives:
It is important to be realistic. I am not suggesting that the next Tory leadership race can or should be conducted entirely through the prism of the environment. We are still working our way as a country through the last ‘big thing’; the politics of Brexit will continue to spin until the nation makes a strategic choice.
But future Conservative leaders must keep this issue on their list of first order concerns in terms of both policy and communication.
It is critical that tonally we are seen to appreciate the scale of the challenge ahead and talk like we ‘get it’; it is after all inherently Tory to preserve the things we value for future generations.
It is fundamental that policy momentum is not lost in the 2020s and 2030s as we go through the UK’s fourth and fifth carbon budget rounds; we are not on track to meet them. What is more, tackling climate change and rebalancing the economy through new green jobs can be two sides of the same coin. We must not cede this ground to the left.
And it is essential that we use our diplomatic power as far as we can – although the business of striking independent free trade deals would make this more difficult – to make the case on emissions to Washington and Beijing.
The next contest for the Conservative crown will be upon us at some point. It is the responsibility of everyone in the Tory family to demand that the candidates have a credible position on these questions. Events will drive the moment this all comes to a head. But a leader of first rank should at least have the ability to see round the corner.