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October 2012: I’m Mandy, Fly Me

When David Cameron announced his Cabinet reshuffle in September, there was a shudder amongst environmentalists reacting to the appointment of (fox hunting, badger culling, climate denying) Owen Paterson at DEFRA and the replacement of (scourge of the airport expanders) Justine Greening at Transport. Green Tories like ‘honest’ Zac Goldsmith and ‘bicycling’ Boris Johnson were quick to give their ecological sabres a public rattling, with Goldsmith threatening to force a by-election in his Richmond Park constituency if the Conservatives did a U turn on the third runway at Heathrow.

The replacement of (popular and knowledgeable) Charles Hendry by (wind farm opposing) John Hayes at DECC was seen as further evidence that Mr Cameron had finally given up on his ‘greenest government ever’ aspirations, even if (beleaguered eco-enthusiast) Greg Barker was left in place as Climate Change Minister for the time being. All of these changes appeared to confirm that George Osborne was winning the argument for killing off any prospect of financing a green economic recovery via the Treasury.

One of the most intriguing observations in the aftermath of the reshuffle was the fact that new Transport Minister Patrick McLoughlin has a fear of flying.

I was reminded of the 10CC’s 1976 hit I’m Mandy Fly Me, with its juxtaposition of a fear of flying with the seduction of an airline poster girl who gets us to buy a ticket anyway. Like Mr Cameron, Mandy overcomes our fears “with a smile as bright as sunshine” and we are welcomed aboard. As Mr McLoughlin joined DfT no doubt he managed to control any irrational fears – even as the HS2 decision loomed and Virgin’s objection to the West Coast Main Line decision was being filed. Facing the combined ire of the Tory shires and Sir Richard Branson might spook many ambitious politicians, but evidently not Mr McLoughlin.

Although many Croner Environment readers may not have been born when 10CC were in the UK charts with Mandy (Zac Goldsmith would have been in nappies), those of my generation will recall that the opening lines of the song also carried a warning: “oh no you’ll never get me up in one of those again; because what goes up, goes up, must come down, down, down….”

And so if we continue weaving the narrative of the fading green credentials of Mr Cameron’s government with the lyrics of Mandy, we might ask at what point the Coalition turns into an environmental plane wreck.

The first clear signal that Liberal Democrat queasiness with their role in the Coalition might take a nasty turn came in the run up to their annual Party Conference in Brighton; with the lack of Tory support for green investment as the chosen battleground.

In an interview with the Guardian on the eve of the conference, Coalition super-loyalist Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury complained that Tories were waging a "constant war of attrition" on green issues ….claiming they were “endangering billions in green investment, as well as the whole government growth strategy”.

Former Energy Secretary Chris Huhne crossed swords with the Chancellor on these topics many times before he resigned from the Cabinet to fight his prosecution for perverting the course of justice. But the fact that Alexander was directly challenging his boss at the Treasury signalled the seriousness of this new attack, raising the spectre of open warfare over prospects for a green economy.

If such a war does break out, many of the battle lines are likely to be drawn on the energy economyenvironment axis, with the Lib Dems challenging George Osborne and the right wing of the Conservative party on how the economy gets decarbonised – with or without fracking, and with or without nuclear power. As the Telegraph noted on 22nd September “the row over energy has now become a major fault-line in the Coalition that is set to define the next few years.”

Before everyone prepares too gleefully for the disintegration of the Coalition over its developing environmental schizophrenia, perhaps we might enter a note of caution. Canada had a minority Conservative government between 2006 and 2011 and the absence of absolute control meant that the environmental scepticism of successive administrations was kept broadly in check. But since winning an outright victory in 2011, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have abolished the National Round Table on Environment and the Economy, cancelled several thousand Federal environmental reviews, and confirmed themselves as unrestrained cheerleaders for the continued expansion of tar sands in Alberta.

If a majority Tory Government is elected in 2015 on the back of a Lib Dem meltdown, some on the hard right may see that as a mandate for ditching all green pretentions – perhaps with George Osborne as PM in waiting. In which case we may wish to keep our fingers crossed that life jackets will be found under our seats…..

David Wheeler, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Sustainability) at Plymouth University and Dean of the Plymouth Business School (At time of writing) 

This article will appear later in the year in Croner’s Environment Magazine 49, 22

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