The next prime minister needs to reinstate the role of minister for climate change, according to the head of the influential Conservative Net Zero Support Group.
Chris Skidmore has become one of the leading voices in the Tory green movement. Along with Zac Goldsmith and Alok Sharma, he is part of a significant number of conservatives who are pressing hard for climate action, and who despair at the opinions of a small number of Tories, such as the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG) who oppose swift action on climate breakdown.
Skidmore, 41, has become an unlikely firebrand on green issues within the party. The MP, who grew up near Bristol, has held a number of junior ministerial positions and is not usually one to court controversy, but seeing the scale of the crisis during his stint as science minister radicalised him and he now spends his time campaigning on the climate emergency.
He became minister for universities, science, research and innovation in the dying days of the Theresa May government and ended up signing the net zero by 2050 target into law.
“If you asked me, when I first got elected in 2010, if I’d be doing this and trying to defend something called net zero, I wouldn’t have understood what you’re talking about. But as science minister I ended up 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 stirred into action. “On the [climate] sceptical side, it doesn’t matter what views they have, they have no solutions apart from to rubbish whatever is put in front of them, and that gets attention instantly. When I saw this group of people on the front page of the Guardian, I thought: ‘Not in my name am I going to allow this group to dominate and claim that they represent the Conservative backbenches.’ So I decided to set up my own rival group.”
That was the inception of the Net Zero Support Group, which has grown quickly and now dwarfs the other wing of the party.
Since Boris Johnson’s departure things have been even busier. Skidmore briefly considered running for leader himself to get the issue of net zero on the table, but “decided that if you don’t attract significant support, you maybe do more damage to your cause”. So instead he organised a climate hustings for the Conservative leadership candidates during the campaign, successfully getting most of them to sign a pledge to honour net zero.
He said it was an uphill battle to convince his fellow green Tories to take action. “They said the risk is if we start mentioning net zero, and pushing candidates on it, other candidates may come up against it and we might backfire. But I stood up and said you can’t stand there and think that you can just be quiet about what you want, and then hope that no one mentions it during the leadership contest, because then you’ve lost all legitimacy.”
The final two, Liz Truss, and Rishi Sunak, have now both signed up to net zero, although both have largely avoided talking about the climate during the campaign. Skidmore has pledged his support to Sunak: “I looked Rishi in the eyes and said do you support net zero, and he said yes.”
Knowing that Goldsmith was supporting Truss, Skidmore decided the most sensible thing to do would be to throw in his lot with Sunak, so green interests would be represented no matter which candidate won.
Skidmore says the new prime minister must reinstate the role of climate change minister. The Department for Energy and Climate Change was abolished under Theresa May’s government in 2016, and moved into the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Labour has a separate climate change shadow minister, Ed Miliband.
“Climate change and the energy transition sits across several departments and there is no one person tackling it. My wish is that one of the leaders would create a minister who attends cabinet and tackles this crucial issue. When the department was abolished it just sent the wrong message,” Skidmore said.
He is also outspoken about his party’s record on climate change and the legacy it is threatening to leave: “Those who think they’re playing tactically, by trying to get either newspaper headlines or quick wins, will be remembered as having failed a generation.”
He cites former Conservative prime minister David Cameron as an example. “Cameron made that disastrous decision to ‘cut the green crap’ and put a moratorium on windfarms, and we’ve seen potentially huge losses, not only in terms of British jobs, investment and the British economy, but also our bills could have been slashed. Every single person could have lower bills by now if we made a more strategic decision to invest in renewables.”
Seeing the same questions about wind, fracking and climate breakdown return again fills him with frustration. Skidmore is clear that if the party goes backwards on net zero it could have global implications.
“I’ve just kept on thinking if we as the UK delayed net zero, or we went back and revisited legislation, that would be a domino effect in the opposite direction. India and China and everyone else would say: ‘Well, if the UK can’t stick to its legislation and it’s going to break its promises then we’ll do the same.’”
Skidmore’s outspoken critique of his colleagues, as well as support for the underdog in the race, could rule him out of a cabinet position should Truss win. But he hopes she would not follow Johnson’s example and fill the cabinet only with those who agree with her.
“This is the big challenge for Liz if she becomes prime minister. I’d ask her: ‘Do you create a broad-based party that is an Abraham Lincoln-type team of rivals, or are you creating a faction with patronage?’
“This is what Boris Johnson did, a faction of patronage, and it ended up being a disastrous strategy. He kept rewarding his supporters and turning against anyone who opposed him. Margaret Thatcher never did that. The future of the Conservative party in government depends on them creating a cabinet of talented people and not rewarding a nodding group of yes men and women.”