The decision by senior Conservatives to legitimise the ‘15-minute cities conspiracy theory’ leaves many of us asking the question, just how far will they go to win the next election?
15-minute cities conspiracy theory
For those of you who had the misfortune to watch Mark Harper MP, secretary of state for transport, deliver his keynote speech to the Conservative Party conference this week, you will have seen that he used the platform to lambast the concept of ‘15-minute cities’ as a nefarious restriction of freedom: “what is sinister is the idea of local councils deciding how often you can go to the shops.”
He was mainstreaming a position which, as recently as last week, had been the preserve of a small band of dedicated conspiracists, often including anti-vaxxers and those skeptical about LGBTQ+ education.
This calculated and provocative talking point was then reiterated by ministers doing media rounds, evidently as part of a media strategy to paint opposition politicians as climate zealots who hate individual freedoms. The fact that this is obviously untrue and not backed up by evidence of any kind led to some predictably bizarre press performances by Harper’s colleagues.
These included Andrew Bowie MP, who couldn’t point to a single example of a 15-minute city, and Claire Couthino MP who, on the Sophie Ridge Programme, eloquently laid into what she referred to as “Sir Keir Starmer’s meat tax”, an imaginary concept she was subsequently unable to explain despite being asked half a dozen times.
So where does this Trumpian nonsense end and what does it mean for our democracy?
Where it goes no one knows
This isn’t just about the language used to attack opponents, it is reflected in a shift in policy designed to put blue water between the government and opposition ahead of a general election.
Despite promising the ‘greenest government ever’ and being elected repeatedly on manifestos featuring relatively ambitious climate action, the past fortnight has seen a rapid succession of climate policy U-turns at the highest level of government.
After the Uxbridge by-election and subsequent concern over the electoral impact of ultra-low emissions zones (ULEZ), there has been a real effort to reopen the climate debate by the fringes of the political right, who sadly seem to have taken over the governing Conservative Party.
Seeing this formula as a chance to avert impending defeat, they intend to create an imaginary bogey man, to stoke electors’ fears about the more radical potential aspects of climate action. It’s what in the current political zeitgeist we would call ‘a wedge issue’. It’s an obvious tack to their right-wing base at the expense of the country at large.
The policy shift matches the rhetoric. Having already U-turned over banning petrol cars, dithered over new environmental housing rules and cancelled major public transport schemes, it is clear the Conservatives are willing to gamble that the view of the electorate on ‘net zero’ is different from that presented by the media.
Decisions with long-term pain for short-term gain
Understandably this has been met with a mix of bafflement in the establishment and fury from climate activists, but the critics of this Jekyll and Hyde shift by government aren’t just the usual suspects.
Despite the prime minister placing the petrol car on the pedestal this week, the response of car maker Ford was scathing about this latest shift in targets for electric vehicles. Ford’s UK chair Lisa Brankin had this to say:
“Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency … [a] relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.”
It’s not only business leaders who have been left perplexed, but also the people required to carry out the decisions.
Legislative changes to ensure consistency in recycling levels have been altered at the last minute, in a way that even DEFRA officials have been unable to explain to the local authorities required to implement it.
Policy positions reached after years of consultation, debate, feasibility and preparatory work are now consigned to delay, cancellation or outright reversal, based on a hasty political calculation.
There is no greater example of this than cancelling the Manchester leg of HS2 while speaking in the very city it is due to benefit, a truly spectacular political blunder.
Even Andy Street, Conservative mayor for the West Midlands, made a desperate appeal to the prime minister outside the conference hall. Making it clear that at least some Conservatives will fight for their beliefs.
But the decision has been made, the row back of net zero has begun. Never mind evidence-based policy, spooking investors, trashing the reputation of the UK as a world leader on the environment or, God forbid, the actual impact on the environment and economy, the prime minister sees this shift purely in terms of narrowing Labour’s commanding poll lead.
Last stand of the blue-green Conservatives
The extent to which the Conservatives have diverged internally was illustrated by the fact that former prime minister Theresa May, never exactly a moderate, was left as a siren voice at a fringe event to speak in defence of the economic opportunities of net zero – calling for action on the environment that could be worth up to £1 trillion to the economy.
We shouldn’t forget that hers is a position which, even four years ago, was part of an election-winning manifesto under Boris Johnson; a manifesto which delivered the largest Conservative victory since Margaret Thatcher. Yet another Conservative prime minister who, despite her many faults, at least had this to say about climate action:
“The problem of global climate change is one that affects us all and action will only be effective if it is taken at the international level … It is no good squabbling over who is responsible or who should pay.”
We are now witnessing the bizarre spectacle of a Conservative Party, after 13 years in office and having supported climate action even before that in opposition, openly breaking with the position taken by their last four election-winning prime ministers.
A government burning its record for a chance at one more term among the ashes.
Faced with this Conservative meltdown and collapse of the environmental consensus, the ball is now in Labour’s court, will the party respond and shift its ground, or stand and fight, as it must, to deliver the many co-benefits of climate action in the interests of people and planet?