In the middle of Liz Truss’s speech, at the end of a chaotic and divisive conference, a protest by Greenpeace activists was perhaps inevitable given the frustration and concern that has been brewing among environmentalists over the direction of government policy.

The prime minister’s words will have only heightened their anxiety.

To cheers from the conference floor, she let fly against the “anti-growth coalition” that is “holding Britain back”, name-checking Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace.

They were just two of a whole spectrum of green organisations targeted over the last few days – including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the National Trust, a large number of the country’s farmers, and anyone who has ever opposed fracking – who all seem, astonishingly, to have become Tory enemies.

As Paul Miner, the head of policy at the not-at-all radical Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, said: “This disingenuous ‘anti-growth coalition’ rhetoric ignores rural communities up and down the country who have heartfelt concerns about the government’s agenda. It’s not eco-protesters organising the resistance to fracking, it’s ordinary people who are furious at what they see as a litany of betrayal and broken promises.”

Green groups have been warning that government plans to slash environment legislation in investment zones and water down the nature farming payments schemes could cause biodiversity collapse. But instead of engaging with them, Tory MPs have called them liars and alarmists.

Fay Jones, the MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, said “we have seen some organisations press the nuclear button” and suggested environment NGOs have been “misleading people”. The chair of the environment, food and rural affairs committee, Robert Goodwill, gave the RSPB both barrels, claiming: “The RSPB has a lot to answer for; they’ve been scaring people, saying we’re going to tear up the rule book and there’s going to be no environmental protections”. Given that the RSPB has over 1 million members (including many Tories), this seems an interesting electoral strategy.

Even the veteran environmental legislator Graham Stuart, now the climate minister, stuck the knife in, telling the Guardian that the wildlife NGOs were “jumping to alarmism” and called their complaints “misguided”.

A former environment minister said the government’s attitude to the RSPB and other wildlife groups was “depressing and disgraceful”.

In the end, the environment secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, held last-minute crisis talks with Beccy Speight, the CEO of the RSPB, to try to quell the anger from Tory voters who had been writing in. But it is understood they did not see eye to eye, and left more angry with each other than when the meeting began.

This strange and disjointed strategy is apparent in the government’s other policies, too; notable moments included Jayawardena declaring Britain would be a “world leader in lettuce”, and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s plans to attend Cop27 to proclaim to the world that “fracking is green”.

The environment secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, speaks to the conference.
The environment secretary, Ranil Jayawardena, speaks at Conservative conference. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

And as the tussle over nature-based payments for farming continued to play out, Jayawardena’s priorities were made clear by whom he decided to meet at the conference, attending every event held by the National Farmers’ Union and finding time to tell a lunch with the British Association for Shooting And Conservation that he was a keen shooter, but meanwhile failing to attend any green fringe events and snubbing NGOs from the Wildlife Trusts to the RSPCA. Speaking at the NFU’s evening reception, he did not mention nature but instead vowed to reduce regulation for farmers. He said: “Sometimes government’s job is to get involved, and sometimes government’s job is to get out of the way, and we are going to do both.”

Last year, things seemed so different; the Tories had stronger green policies, Boris Johnson was vowing to kickstart a renewable industrial revolution, and the green Conservatives were the belles of the ball. In 2022, however, instead of proudly making their case for a global, innovative, green Britain, the more environmentally minded Tories were reduced to begging audiences not to turn their backs on net zero.

Chris Skidmore, the government’s net zero tsar, told a room of his colleagues there was concern that the country would fall behind in the global race to decarbonise if pressure was not kept up. “We can’t simply rest on our laurels. We have to continue to keep running if we’re going to stand still.”

At a Conservative Environment Network fringe meeting, the former transport minister Grant Shapps said: “We need organisations like yours to keep pushing on this,” and urged the room to make the UK “the first nation to get to this incredible green industrial revolution”.

Were there some glimmers of hope at the conference? A couple: the consensus on fracking, for example, is that there is no way it will happen. A minister told me there is “absolutely no way we are ever going to do fracking, the parliamentary numbers don’t stack up”, and Skidmore triumphantly declared “fracking is dead” after Liz Truss U-turned on the 45p tax cut – he thinks this means she will do the same on fracking, as her MPs hate it so much.

The Pro-fracking MP Goodwill also thinks it won’t happen, but blames Keir Starmer: “It’s not going to happen. And the reason it won’t happen is the Labour party has said they’re not going to do fracking. So why would an energy company in the US or wherever it might be put a lot of money into planning to drill a hole in the ground when they know that if there was a change of government that will stop, so I think at the moment it’s not going to happen.”

Just don’t tell that to the business secretary, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who told the Guardian he plans to attend Cop27 in Egypt next month to declare to delegates that fracking is “green”. This may prove a slight embarrassment for the UK on the world stage, especially as King Charles has apparently been told not to go. Ministers say he has “other priorities now”. There is still confusion as to whether Truss, who made little mention of green issues during the conference, is going to go.

One more small consolation for environmentally friendly Tories is that their chief antagonist has promised to shut up.

The net zero sceptic Steve Baker told the Guardian he would not be spreading his views on the climate emergency any longer: “I’m not lobbying other ministers, because I’m too busy trying to get power restored in Northern Ireland, and the protocol. Once I’m out of this room, I’m probably not going to think about net zero for a very long time.”

Unfortunately, that also seems to be the policy of our prime minister and her new team.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *