The next prime minister must reinstate the role of climate change minister, according to the leader of influential Conservative support group Net Zero.
Chris Skidmore has become one of the leading voices of the conservative green movement. Along with Zac Goldsmith and Alok Sharma, he is one of a significant number of conservatives pushing for climate action and despairing of the opinions of a small number of conservatives, such as the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG) which oppose rapid action on climate degradation.
Skidmore, 41, has become an unlikely arsonist on green issues within the party. The MP, who grew up near Bristol, has held a number of junior ministerial posts and is not usually one to court controversy but see the scale of the crisis during his time as science minister l has radicalized and he now spends his time campaigning on the climate emergency.
He became Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation in the final days of Theresa May’s government and ended up signing the goal of net zero by 2050 into law.
“If you had asked me, when I was first elected in 2010, if I was doing this and trying to advocate for something called net zero, I wouldn’t have understood what you were talking about. But as science minister, I found myself in a place where I could see the science, see climate change happening and how clear it is that we need to act.
When the NZSG began to focus on disrupting climate action, Skidmore was pushed into action. “On the [climate] on the skeptical side, no matter what their point of view, they have no choice but to spoil whatever is presented to them, and it instantly attracts attention. When I saw this group of people on the front page of the Guardian I thought, ‘It is not in my name that I am going to allow this group to dominate and claim that they represent the MPs of conservative backbenchers. So I decided to create my own rival group.
This was the creation of the Net Zero Support Group, which grew rapidly and now eclipses the other wing of the party.
Since the departure of Boris Johnson, things are even busier. Skidmore briefly considered running himself as a leader to put the net zero issue on the table, but “decided that if you don’t attract meaningful support, you may be doing more damage to your cause.” . Instead, he staged an election campaign for the Conservative leadership candidates during the campaign, managing to get most of them to sign a pledge to honor net zero.
He said it was an uphill battle to convince his fellow Green Conservatives to act. “They said the risk is that if we start mentioning net zero and pushing candidates on it, other candidates might run into it and we might backfire. But I stood up and said you can’t just sit there and think you can just keep quiet about whatever you want and then hope nobody mentions it during the leadership race because then you have lost all legitimacy.
The bottom two, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, have now both registered for net zero, although both have largely avoided talking about the climate during the campaign. Skidmore pledged his support to Sunak, “I looked Rishi in the eye and said support net zero, and he said yes.”
Knowing that Goldsmith supported Truss, Skidmore decided the most sensible thing to do would be to partner with Sunak, so that green interests would be represented regardless of the winning candidate.
Skidmore says the new prime minister must reinstate the role of climate change minister. The Department of Energy and Climate Change was abolished under Theresa May’s government in 2016 and moved to the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Labor has another shadow climate change minister, Ed Miliband.
“Climate change and energy transition are cross-departmental and there is no one to tackle it. My wish is that one of the leaders creates a minister who assists the Cabinet and tackles this crucial issue. When the department was abolished, it just sent the wrong message,” Skidmore said.
He is also candid about his party’s record on climate change and the legacy it threatens to leave: “Those who think they are playing tactically, trying to get either headlines or quick wins, will be remembered as having failed a generation. ”
He cites former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron as an example. “Cameron took this disastrous decision to ‘cut the green shit’ and impose a moratorium on wind farms, and we have seen potentially huge losses, not only in terms of jobs, investment and the UK economy “, but also our bills could have been slashed. Every person could now have lower bills if we made the more strategic decision to invest in renewable energy.”
Seeing the same questions again about wind, fracking and climate breakdown fills him with frustration. Skidmore is clear that if the party backtracks on net zero, it could have global implications.
“I just kept thinking that if we as the UK delayed net zero, or if we went back and looked at the legislation again, it would be a domino effect in the opposite direction. India, China and everyone else would say, ‘Well, if the UK can’t stick to their laws and they’re going to break their promises, we’ll do the same.’
Skidmore’s outspoken criticism of his colleagues, as well as support for the underdog in the race, could rule him out of a cabinet post if Truss wins. But he hopes she won’t follow Johnson’s lead and only fill the cabinet with those who agree with her.
“That’s the big challenge for Liz if she becomes prime minister. I was asking her, ‘Are you creating a broad-based party that’s an Abraham Lincoln-type team of rivals, or are you creating a faction with patronage?’
“That’s what Boris Johnson, a faction of patronage, did and it turned out to be a disastrous strategy. He continued to reward his supporters and turn against anyone who opposed him. Margaret Thatcher never did that.The future of the Conservative Party in government depends on creating a cabinet of talented people, not on rewarding a group of yes men and women.