The Conservative party is going in a “very dark direction”, a Tory former minister has said, as misinformation around climate continues.
Chris Skidmore, the MP for Kingswood, in Gloucestershire, served as energy minister under Theresa May when she signed the target of net zero emissions by 2050 into law. He was appointed last year as Liz Truss’s net zero tsar, and asked to review the UK’s net zero plan, which is now being published in paperback.
Skidmore, a loyal Tory who once served as vice-chair of the party, has found himself left behind recently as many of his colleagues turn their backs on net zero. He was the only Conservative MP to vote with Labour on its amendments to the energy bill in September.
“I don’t feel I have moved in my position,” he said. “I am a liberal conservative who came in under David Cameron. We used that language of hope, of opportunity, of facing the future, not turning to the past and claiming that things were somehow better.”
Many critics believe Rishi Sunak has focused on stoking the culture wars since becoming the prime minister. Ministers have referred to those campaigning for climate change as “zealots”, criminal law has been changed in a way that targets fossil fuel protesters, and there has been a change of tone on many other issues, from immigration to homelessness.
“I think there are certain values that have been established by certain groups in the Conservative party that are not my values,” Skidmore said. “Politicians [are] turning their backs towards people who need help; speaking out about what they are against, rather than what they are for.”
He described the Conservative party as a broad church. “But there are certain individuals who want to take it in a very dark direction. I think the challenge is, as a politician, how you frame your arguments. [They] should be towards the greater good, and not towards the lowest common denominator.”
Asked if he is referring to Suella Braverman’s comments about homelessness being “a lifestyle choice”, Skidmore nodded and said: “That remark has already been called out by members of the cabinet, so I think I’m not alone in thinking that is a deeply regrettable thing she said.”
Skidmore was more positive about the opposition leader, Keir Starmer, than about Sunak.
“What Keir Starmer has done, he’s got a mission-based approach; taking that long-term approach and focusing on outcomes. What we [the Conservatives] are lacking at the moment is the positive, future-facing confident approach.”
Skidmore suggested Sunak lacked the confidence of his convictions. “If you’re confident in your abilities you don’t waste your energy going after people, you just get on with your job of knowing: ‘This is what I believe and this is what I’m going to achieve’. If you aren’t confident in your abilities, you start attacking other people and and framing your beliefs in a negative way.”
He said he had stopped voting with his party out of loyalty and instead saw his responsibility as being to his constituents and to the climate.
“My responsibility is to my constituents, while I’m still in power, to make sure that they have the best possible chance for cheaper bills. I’ve not got much time left in parliament; I’m going to make the case for net zero. Net zero is measured, proportionate and will achieve economic growth.
“I will be speaking in contrast to those extreme voices that want to somehow suggest that net zero is an imposition. What is the alternative they are offering, apart from maintaining the industries of the past that are going to be shutting down anyway?”
Skidmore said he thought some of the more extreme rightwing views espoused by some parts of the media were partly to blame for Sunak and his cabinet’s veer to the hard right.
“In certain parts of the media, on these new channels, the attack on net zero is a proxy war,” he said. “I think the challenge has always been, to what extent you engage with those who have genuine concerns about costs, versus wanting to just use this as a means by which to delay, go slow, to deny. And I think my concern is obviously whether those individuals are given an equal platform or not. Because there are still those who doubt the science, and we haven’t got enough time now to be playing games.”
“There is a world of just the private sector getting on with it, and a world that wants to basically play to a base of the Telegraph, GB News, that doesn’t represent reality. This has caused a myopic focus in Westminster and Whitehall which I’ve seen as being behind the curve on issues that are not the issues that will encourage economic investment in this country.”
Skidmore said he was particularly angry about attacks on the Climate Change Committee, an independent body that advises the government on five-year “carbon budgets” necessary to meet its 2050 target, which has been politicised of late by politicians and the media.
“There have been specific attacks coming from the Telegraph, claiming that it has powers that it does not have. It’s an advisory body. It doesn’t have any ability to make specific policy recommendations. All it does is report on the impact of the government’s policy recommendations. This is another classic case of misinformation.”
However, Skidmore said he did believe there was a future for the tradition of conservative environmentalism.
“I really feel as a Conservative that there are thousands of people who have voted Conservative in the past because their understanding of what it is to be conservative is to conserve, is to protect nature, is to protect the environment, is to look at how to do things in maybe a measured and modest way and to balance various different competing interests. That is what it is, to me, to be a conservative.”
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