The greenwashing of Theresa May
Theresa May has a message for young, green-minded Britons: The Tories care about plastic pollution, animal welfare, forests and climate change too.
It’s been a gaffe-filled year for the U.K. prime minister, with an election fiasco, onstage coughing fits, memes of a young May running through wheat fields and a series of embarrassing ministerial resignations that ended with this week’s botched Cabinet reshuffle — not to mention fierce Cabinet infighting over Brexit.
But the new year is bringing a rebranding of sorts, aimed squarely at young voters who eschewed the Conservative pro-fox hunting crowd in the 2017 election, with a concerted show of support for the eco-friendly issues they care about.
And May is taking ownership of the push herself, with a key speech on Thursday alongside powerful Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who spearheaded the promise of a “Green Brexit” when he stepped into the role last summer.
The speech will present the government’s 25-year Environment Plan, ripe with measures to toughen the fight against plastic pollution and tackle what Gove described as the “throwaway culture,” building on a 5 pence charge on plastic bags that was introduced in October 2015. It’s expected to include measures such as a tax on single-use plastic, a deposit return scheme for drink containers, and an extension of the plastic bag charge to small shops.
Plastics and other detritus line the shore of the Thames Estuary on January 2, 2018 in Rainham, Kent, United Kingdom | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
That simply brings England into line with Wales and Scotland and was something that, in any case, David Cameron’s government chose not to do despite strong urging from MPs.
May told Cabinet ministers this week that the overall plan would “send a strong message to the public about the government’s commitment to be the first generation to leave the natural environment in a better state than we inherited.”
“We now see 9 billion fewer plastic bags being used … it’s making a real difference. We want to do the same in relation to single plastic use,” May told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. “Nobody who watched [the David Attenborough nature documentary series] ‘Blue Planet’ will doubt the need to do something.”
These are the types of issues closest to the hearts of voters under 40, who broke decisively for Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn over May last summer, according to the Conservative think tank Bright Blue. A YouGov poll after the election found that the most popular policies among under 40s are environmental, including renewable electricity, banning the sale of ivory products and providing incentives for people to insulate their homes.
Planting trees and banning microbeads
The 25-year Environment Plan comes on the heels of a long list of green initiatives the government has announced in recent months.
In the past week alone, Gove and his environment department have pledged to spend £5.7 million to plant 50 million trees and grow a new forest in northern England; brought in a ban on plastic microbeads used in facial scrubs and body washes; and reannounced plans to change the agriculture subsidy system post-Brexit to reward farmers who enhance the environment. That idea has won plaudits, but Gove has now slipped the timescale for introducing the new system to 2024 at the earliest — two years later than originally billed and well after the U.K.’s exit date from the EU in March 2019.
In a sign of the May government’s attention to voter opinion, it also backed down last week from holding a parliamentary vote on lifting a ban on fox hunting. May personally supports ending the ban, and ahead of last year’s general election the Conservatives had promised to end the measure.
“I’ve not changed my personal view,” May told Marr, while noting she has never fox-hunted. But the Conservatives heard a clear message during that poll: “People were concerned about what we were proposing,” she said.
Environmentalists are generally welcoming of the government’s initiatives, although many remain skeptical of the promise that the U.K. can become greener after it leaves the EU. While they support Gove’s call to refocus agriculture subsidies after losing the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, for instance, they worry about losing a layer of Union-wide environmental regulations. And most of the green measures that May will trumpet in her speech are coming down the Brussels policy-slipway anyway.
“These are obviously quite headline-grabbing things which show that a desire to be greener is emerging, and the government has been making the right noises,” said Joseph Dutton, a policy adviser at the environmental think tank E3G in London. “But saying it is different from actually implementing it. There’s a long way to go, and there is a fear that things that will be put forward with the label of being a Green Brexit will just be deregulation across many sectors.”
Still, the government’s new treehugger credentials mark a change from the start of May’s leadership in July 2016.
On becoming prime minister, May faced accusations that she was downgrading environmental policy. The department responsible lost the words “climate change” from its title and was absorbed into the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the environment secretary role was handed to Andrea Leadsom, who has admitted once asking officials “is climate change real?”
It was a far cry from Cameron’s efforts as Conservative leader to “detoxify” the Tory brand with a much-derided but partially effective push on green issues, which famously included a trip to the Arctic Circle in 2006 — earning the agenda the sobriquet “Hug a Husky.”
Protesters opposed to foxhunting march through the streets of London on May 29, 2017 | Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images
The apparent retoxification of the Tory brand seemed complete after last summer’s snap election, when the party failed to put a commitment to banning ivory sales into its manifesto and May voiced her support for fox hunting. Both stories went viral on social media and are thought by Tory election officials to have harmed the party’s standing with swing voters, especially young ones.
Then another story went viral in November, on a technicality in the EU (Withdrawal) Bill that meant the U.K. would no longer recognize the sentience of animals currently under EU law. It prompted Gove to pledge a specific U.K. law to do just that.
The Tory fear of appearing “un-green” and uncaring about animal welfare and wildlife (both matters close to the hearts of British voters) was palpable. Now Gove, a leading figure in the campaign to leave the EU, is working overtime to assert the party’s green credentials all over again — an effort that Downing Street hopes will not only help woo younger voters, but also demonstrate a significant upside to Brexit.
Gove has re-cast himself as an eco-warrior — backing a ban on insect-harming neonicotinoid pesticides, supporting the reintroduction of beavers to the British countryside, and announcing a ban on ivory sales to fight elephant poaching.
The government’s environment agenda appeared to have come full circle Monday when it was confirmed that Claire Perry, business minister responsible for climate change, would now be attending Cabinet meetings — a major and symbolic promotion. Perry successfully orchestrated the launch in November of a broad international alliance to phase out unabated coal, led by the U.K. and Canada.
May’s speech on Thursday will likely try to build on these “achievements and positive rhetoric,” said Sam Hall, senior research fellow at Bright Blue. “I think definitely there’s a realization that there’s a political opportunity here to be more ambitious on the environment, and that it can help the Conservative Party with its challenge of winning younger voters among whom it did so badly at the last general election.”