Katy Balls

Can Boris Johnson’s green makeover woo red wall voters?

Can Boris Johnson's green makeover woo red wall voters?
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COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference due to be held in Glasgow, isn't until November, but work is already underway in Downing Street to put the government's green agenda front and centre. After confirming earlier this week that the government will seek to cut carbon emissions by 78 per cent by 2035, Boris Johnson has this afternoon spoken at Joe Biden's Leader's Summit on Climate. 

The Prime Minister praised the US president's commitment to cut greenhouse gases by 50 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030 as a 'game changing announcement'. He also said it is 'vital for all of us to show that this is not all about some expensive politically correct, green act of bunny hugging'. Rather than befriending rabbits, Johnson insists the agenda is really about 'growth and jobs'.

There are political reasons, too, that the Prime Minister is suddenly so enthused about greenery. As I reported in The Spectator this month, it's the policy area by which Johnson plans to cosy up to Biden and show that the UK can be an influential figure on the world stage. It's also viewed within No. 10 as a key plank of his post-pandemic domestic agenda. The thinking goes that an environmental push – with COP26 a key part of this strategy – could give the Tories a boost as they look towards a fifth term. 

The Tories won a majority of 80 on a pro-Brexit, high-spend strategy in the 2019 election, breaking Labour’s red wall. But with the forces of Vote Leave now ousted, the PM’s new allies argue that the Tory coalition must widen once again. Tackling climate change, they say, could offer a way to win over metropolitan voters, from those scarred by Brexit to Labour swing voters. ‘If you can crack that nut through support for human rights and climate change, you access a huge new swathe of voters who are hard to reach,’ says one insider.

Will it work? Johnson's thinking – as reflected in today's comments – is that the green agenda doesn't have to cost the public as technology will likely ride to the rescue. Technology has already helped push Britain’s carbon emissions to levels last seen in 1888. However, with the Treasury under Philip Hammond calculating that the cost of the ‘net zero’ target was about £1,000 billion, there is concern in Whitehall that the Prime Minister is not being up front about the cost and Johnson's promise of no carbon taxes for hardworking Brits will be hard to keep.

When it comes to enthusiasm in the parliamentary party for the green agenda, there is widespread support for green jobs. After all, what MP wouldn't want new jobs in their constituency? But MPs say the figures most enthusiastic for the net zero agenda tend to be in more traditional Tory seats in the South or Lib Dem-Tory marginals. If Johnson can't get the sums to add up, there's a risk that, in the process of winning over swing voters with this new agenda, some of the party's current voters will be turned off.