Katy Balls Katy Balls

The green games: the Prime Minister’s big plan to rebrand Britain

It is not unusual for governments to focus on a big event after a period of crisis. In 1951, the Festival of Britain was meant to rejuvenate the country after years of post-war austerity and rationing. The 2012 London Olympics, presided over by Mayor Boris Johnson, supposedly announced the UK’s recovery from recession with a £27 million opening ceremony.

But games are intended to be boosterish. A 12-day summit on the environment is not an obvious crowd pleaser. Yet this government is determined to turn COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference scheduled to be held in Glasgow in the first two weeks of November, into a great event to put Britain on the map. There had long been talk in government circles of a ‘Festival of Brexit’ to heal the wounds of the referendum campaign — but now the Prime Minister sees environmentalism as the great unifier.

In government, comparisons are already being made with 2012. The word in Whitehall is that the event will be ‘bigger than the Olympics’. The original plan was to invite 30,000 delegates, making it the largest summit Britain has ever hosted. Thanks to Covid-19, those plans are now all in flux. But the government still regards COP26 as a significant moment. With one giant eco-jamboree, it’s thought, the country can leave behind the miseries of the pandemic, set aside the agonies of our divorce from the EU, and even shore up the Union. The idea is that Britain can use COP26 to turn itself, once more, into a global force with great PR.

Johnson is itching to put Covid behind him. He might not have to wait much longer. Vaccines are rolling out fast, the vast majority of pensioners now have antibodies and the virus is in retreat. In Downing Street, when the mood is dour, attention gravitates towards COP26: the bright green star on the government’s uncertain horizon.

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