Gabriel Milland is a Partner at Portland Communications. He was a temporary special advisor in Downing Street for the first five months of the pandemic last year.
The voices on the Conservative right demanding that COP26 be the moment that Boris Johnson ditch greenery can and should be ignored.
Not just because the same sort of scientific consensus in favour of Covid vaccinations and against letting the virus rip says that attempting to decarbonise the world’s economy is necessary. But also because the politics demands it.
Those are the findings of a comprehensive new poll that Portland Communications carried out last week. While some want to believe that “traditionally-minded” Tory voters – and new converts in the Red Wall – wish that the Prime Minister would shut up about carbon, our poll found that only six per cent of 2019 Conservative voters think he should talk less about climate change and instead “talk about things that matter to me more”.
This is not a function of the bulk of the Tory vote still being more affluent and more willing to spend money. Just 10 per cent of those earning between £15,000 and £35,000 a year – the C1C2D voters who gave Johnson his majority last year – wish that he would shut up about green issues. Nor is it due to any environmentalist youthquake. Just eight per cent of over-65s agree with this statement
If there is criticism of him among Conservative voters, it appears to be that he is not interested enough, or people who worry that he is only paying lip-service. A combined 49 per cent of Tory 2019 voters subscribe to these views. Meanwhile exactly a third of Conservative 2019 voters – 33 per cent – agree that Labour is right to want to spend more on policies like Net Zero.
This matches what I have picked up in focus groups in recent times. Groups held with Tory activists in deepest Surrey revealed a tribe who had become passionate supporters of greenery. The reason? Many of them were keen gardeners who had noticed things were starting to bloom in late December while summers turned lush sanctuaries into scorched savannahs.
The trouble for those who want to throw the Net Zero revolution into reverse – and seem to think that a referendum is the right way to do it – is not just that this is not a binary. It is also the fact that so very few people see this as an issue where there is much debate. And making bad things more expensive seems a reasonable way of going about the task in hand. Climate scepticism, to most, is a deeply eccentric view.
I share the view that a collapse in the Blue Wall is unlikely yet to present an existential electoral threat to the Prime Minister’s “Brexity social democrat” coalition. But it could make a majority harder to get. When asked “would you ever consider voting for a party that had the environment as its main issue, like the Green Party, in a general election?, 37 per cent of Conservative 2019 voters say yes.
People are much more likely to say they might consider doing something than not. However, this is a number which should give Tory strategists cause for concern. The most popular reason why was “by voting for a party like this I would show the other parties that they need to change”.
Numbers for Labour “green considerers” are much higher – at 58 per cent. That might suggest – for Labour – the views of a substantial number of disenchanted Corbynites. But not all of them are. Only 37 per cent of that cohort of Labour voters said the reason they might vote more greenly was that Labour had become too like the Tories. The rest will be green-ish “normals” who could yet ditch Red for Blue, especially Blues with a pragmatic and parsimonious attitude, while Labour offers only higher taxes.
Were the Green Party itself not in such deep thrall to crankdom and so heavily associated in the public mind with unpopular protest ,then there would be little to stop it reaching German levels of popularity. But that is not the Green Party we have, or are ever likely to get.
The key problem is money, of course. Just seven per cent of our sample said “my family and me, and other families like mine” should pay most of the cost of going green. Business, the government and the Chinese are all far out in front. And fewer than half in our sample are willing to pay more than an extra £50 a month on top of current bills to reduce carbon. Twenty-two per cent said “nothing”.
Public opinion is the Ming vase which the Prime Minister must carry in the direction of 2050. But he is determined to do so. Talk to those who have spoken about it with him and they speak of a leader who sees Net Zero as key to much of what he wants to do – from levelling up via green investment to making something concrete out of “Global Britain”.
But ignore all that, and even the science behind the target, and the politics still make a very strong case. An increasing number of businesses understand this, which is why they are spending an increasing amount of money and time on “sustainability”, and will need to do much more to understand their role in changes which will be happening. If the Conservative Party won’t make halting climate change one of its missions, there will be others who will offer to do so – and get a hearing.