One of the things MPs complain about when it comes to Brexit – aside from its handling by the government – is that it means there is little time left for the Conservatives to pursue much in the terms of domestic policy. The one area which appears to be the exception to the rule is the environment. Since Michael Gove was appointed Defra secretary, there have been a raft of good news announcements coming from the department.
From a £140 million fund for developing countries to tackle climate change and a clean energy programme to reintroducing beavers into the wild and saving trees in Sheffield, the Conservatives are on a mission to rebrand themselves as the party of the environment. This comes as the Tories attempt to detoxify themselves following the snap election – where they managed to undo a lot of David Cameron’s modernisation efforts thanks to a combination of May’s personal endorsement of fox-hunting, a weak stance on ivory trade and an association with a hard inward-looking image of Brexit. In turn, liberal metropolitan voters turned away in their droves. To give some perspective, at the 2015 election more graduates voted for the Tories than any other party. But in June, Labour had a 17-point lead with this group. To beat Labour at the next election, the Tories need to win these voters back.
As I write in the i paper today, earlier this month Tory MPs were summoned to No 10 for a briefing in resetting the narrative. Here they were presented with a series of route maps that showed which party led on which value. The only ‘ value’ issue the Tories are ahead on is the economy while Labour led on both the NHS and jobs. Importantly, no-one is yet seen as the party of the environment.
It follows that this is now the mission of Conservatives. Led by Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, the party is going all out to shore up the green vote. To do this, they are learning to recycle in more ways than one. Gove is returning to an old playbook. When David Cameron first became Tory leader and was desperately trying to modernise the party one of the first things he did was promise a “green revolution”. In the 2006 local election campaign, the Tories urged people to “vote blue, go green”.
What’s more, there are already signs to suggest that it could be working. With the Tories reportedly marginally ahead of Labour for the first time since the snap election, the party has won praise for its policies from unlikely places including the Guardian columnist George Monbiot and the Soil Association. Green Conservatism 2.0 may win over voters yet.