One of the more interesting developments of an otherwise dull party conference season was George Osborne’s decision to announce a go slow on Britain’s reduction of carbon emissions. The plot thickened when David Cameron – who once hugged huskies in the quest to go green – made not one mention of the politics of climate change during his conference speech.
This has sent a warming glow through the ranks of the right. Both Tim Montgomerie at ConservativeHome and Fraser Nelson have latched on to the Osborne speech as a key moment.
To paraphrase Rachel Sylvester’s excellent phrase, no one is asking you to vote blue to go green now that we are in the red.
So far the Liberal Democrats have kept quiet about this.
But I can reveal there is rumbling disquiet in the yellow ranks and private demands for crisis talks on what the heck the Chancellor was playing at.
Mr Osborne told the Tory conference that Britain will not put British firms at a disadvantage by cutting carbon emissions faster than other countries.
Senior Lib Dems accused Mr Osborne of peddling ‘red meat’ for his party faithful that risks contradicting government policy, since the Government has enshrined in law a pledge to cut carbon emissions by 30 per cent by 2020.
Sources close to Nick Clegg and Energy Secretary Chris Huhne said any pledge to backtrack on that would contradict public statements by the Prime Minister and undermine the coalition’s pledge to be the greenest government ever.
‘The PM was on the record in June saying we are sticking to the targets,’ a Clegg ally pointed out.
Andrew George, the Liberal Democrat in charge of green issues, has revealed he will hold talks with Tory environment ministers Caroline Spelman and Jim Paice to seek clarification of the policy.
He warned: ‘We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business. So let’s at the very least resolve that we’re going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe.’
Under the Climate Change Act the government is currently legally bound to cut emissions by 35 per cent by 2022 and 50 per cent by 2025. In contrast, the EU is only committed to cutting emissions 20 per cent by 2020.
Sources close to Mr Clegg and Mr Huhne both said they assumed that Mr Osborne was referring to one portion of the emissions cuts where some flexibility exists – rather than the overall total emissions cuts.
The way they tell it, Britain will only go as fast as the rest of Europe in cutting electricity emissions.
But where it concerns greenhouse gases from heating and transport, which are part of the emissions trading scheme, Britain could slow down.
The only problem with that is that it is not what the Chancellor said. He was clearly talking about the overarching emissions targets.
Treasury officials yesterday insisted Mr Osborne has written an opt out clause into the cuts plan so he can force a slowdown in reductions if Europe drags its feet.
‘The carbon budget was seen as a win for Chris Huhne but we were firm on a get out clause,’ one said.
But in a warning to the Chancellor not to rewrite policy, one senior Liberal Democrat said the overall targets must remain. ‘The Prime Minister is on the record saying that we are serious about cutting emissions,’ the source said. ‘That’s agreed government policy.’
Another Lib Dem added: ‘Where we have agreements and where we have settled policy we can’t have backpedalling.’
The Lib Dems are relaxed that Mr Osborne was throwing a bone to his party faithful, after all they did the same at their conference, with Mr Huhne denouncing the ‘tea party tendency’ in the Tory Party and Sarah Teather making ill-judged jokes about the Chancellor.
But the Lib Dems think the language on climate was of different order.
An ally of Mr Huhne said: ‘At all the party conferences there was a bit of red meat for the base. That’s what this looks like. But our red meat was rhetorical, they seem to be re-writing policy.’
Expect Messrs Huhne and Clegg to seek assurances from David Cameron that he is still serious about making the coalition Britain’s greenest ever government.
Meanwhile, the backbenchers are happy to weigh in.
Andrew George dismissed the Chancellor’s claims that green policies are a drag on the economy.
‘It would be a mistake for people to think that green policy is a luxury when we’ve got to get the economy straight.
‘If the UK is to respond positively to the challenges of the economy, green technology and green growth are one of the key things that will take us forward.
‘I’ll be having meetings with Caroline Selman and Jim Paice in the next few weeks, which is a chance to iron out any differences. It is better to have those discussions in private before we have public row.’
Fellow Lib Dem Martin Horwood said: ‘As far as most Liberal Democrats are concerned our targets on climate change are pretty non-negotiable.
‘We don’t regard environmental regulation as red tape but as vital to to securing a sustainable recovery for this country.’