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Britain’s net zero skeptics reach for the Brexit playbook

LONDON — A backlash against Boris Johnson’s plan to cut Britain’s carbon emissions is gaining prominent backers in the U.K. — and they’re dusting off the playbook used by the Brexit campaign.

The political campaign against the U.K.’s net zero agenda shares many of the same key figures — and tactics — as the successful bid to get Britain out of the EU. But it’s still got a long way to run to rival the Brexiteers for influence.

Out in front so far has been the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, a small but well-established caucus of Conservative MPs who argue they have no beef with the goal of fighting climate change but question where the costs will fall.

They’ve now been joined by none other than Nigel Farage, the former MEP who helped spook the Tories into holding an EU referendum in the first place. His newly-launched “Vote Power, Not Poverty” campaign invites voters to “take back control of our energy policies and prices” — a clear callback to a key slogan of the pro-Brexit drive — and it’s demanding a referendum on the U.K.’s legal commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Farage told POLITICO the consensus behind net zero was “such a Westminster point of view” perpetuated by “Zac and the gang” — a reference to Zac Goldsmith, environment minister and one of the greenest members of Johnson’s government. 

Farage added: “My sense is once people get the Q1 bills people are gonna say ‘well hang on a second, what’s going on here? Why have you done this to us?’”

Farage’s involvement offers a clear line of continuity between Brexit and net zero skepticism — but the similarities do not end there. 

Close links

Steve Baker, a serial Tory rebel who was among the first to start publicly calling for more debate on the green measures, was also a key figure in the so-called “Spartan” wing of Brexiteer MPs who successfully thwarted Theresa May’s efforts for a softer Brexit.

Craig Mackinlay, who chairs the NZSG, was a senior figure in Farage’s old grouping, the U.K. Independence Party, in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The structure of the NZSG meanwhile bears some resemblance to the influential European Research Group of MPs. Both adopt the preferred Tory model of vocal but ultimately stable pockets of resistance inside the parliamentary party. Around half of the NZSG were also ERG members, according to research shared with POLITICO by the climate news website DeSmog.

As one Conservative MP put it “the NZSG is a sort of Spartan group that has no actual majority and just ends up creating hell for the Tory party by swinging signs around.”

DeSmog tracked the overlaps between the Brexit campaign and the new groups taking aim at Johnson’s climate policy. They found that Leave Means Leave — the Farage-led pressure group for Brexit — had renamed its Twitter account, along with its almost 80,000 followers, to Vote Power, Not Poverty. POLITICO separately verified the change. 

The company behind Leave Means Leave was renamed Britain Means Business (BMB) in May 2020, according to Companies House. BMB’s Twitter account now directs to Vote Power, Not Poverty — Farage’s campaign. 

Familiar faces meanwhile rotate through the boards of the various groups, which include Leave Means Leave, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) — a think tank long associated with climate misinformation — and the GWPF’s new campaign arm Net Zero Watch.

The layering of these multiple groups is designed to create the illusion that the campaign is larger than it really is, argued Jennie King, head of civic action and education at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. The same handful of figures are expected to boost and reinforce one another’s messages, said King, whose London-based think tank targets online extremism, hate and misinformation.

Vote Power, Not Poverty has picked up where the erstwhile Brexit Party — whose influential campaigning helped speed up Theresa May’s exit from office — left off. That group’s current incarnation, as the COVID-impatient Reform Party, never quite took off, giving its leader Richard Tice time to join Farage on his latest quest.

A launch rally for the new group is planned to take place in the north-western town of Bolton, where the Brexit Party held its first rally in 2018. Speakers include John Longworth, a former director of Leave Means Leave, and Graham Stringer, a pro-Brexit Labour MP who is also a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

Those at the helm of the new movement suggest they are targeting a similar demographic to the Leave campaign, and claim that now, as then, the existing political establishment has underestimated the frustration felt by lower-income voters. 

An adviser to Farage’s new outfit said the “elites” were failing to pay attention to the cost of installing a heat pump to “someone who lives in a terraced house in Blackburn.”

Baker predicted that what had been on few people’s radar last year “is going to turn out to be a very popular cause.” 

In reality, the surge in energy prices is being driven by soaring gas prices, not the government’s pursuit of net zero, according to the International Energy Agency, which instead urged a doubling-down on the transition away from fossil fuels.

Baker was early to spot that concern over green policies could be tied to the rising cost of living. But they could not have foreseen just how brutal the pressure on household budgets would become, squeezed further by new taxes, high inflation and war in Ukraine. What seemed like an outside bet is now front and center of the political agenda.

‘Silent majority’

Despite the many threads connecting the two causes, however, the analogy only goes so far.

Although the Leave side was never seriously expected to win the referendum, euroskepticism was already an entrenched tradition in British politics. It boasted adherents across the political spectrum and had done so ever since the idea of a European federation was conceived.

There has always been a significant band of euroskeptics within the Conservative Party, even if they were taken less seriously before the Brexit shock, while successive Westminster and European elections from 2010 onwards showed a solid, growing euroskeptic vote. 

In comparison, the current brand of net zero skepticism appears young, uncertain and, for now, a minority pursuit. This is a point made by figures on both sides.

Chris Skidmore, a former minister who started the Net Zero Support Group, said he had founded the group because he felt the need to speak up for the “silent majority” who do support climate action in the party.

“I don’t think that the Brexit peril is the same here because so many pro-Brexit MPs are also pro-net zero,” he argued, pointing to what the government likes to call “the green industrial revolution” of bolstering manufacturing in deprived northern seats Johnson won over in 2019.

Baker in turn dismissed parallels between NZSG and Brexiteers as “bollocks,” arguing that the ERG had been able to influence the course of Brexit, but “in terms of net zero, we’re never going to win any votes in the House of Commons because Labour are always going to be more green than the Conservative Party, if that’s possible.”

There’s a deeper difference between the two campaigns, too. The Leave campaign settled on a clear, stated goal: to take the U.K. out of the EU.

It’s much less clear what the endgame of the push against net zero is. NZSG members say it is about providing scrutiny and accountability — but that’s hard to imagine on the side of a campaign bus.

As prominent right-of-center journalist Tom Harwood recently mused on Twitter: “If we were to hold a referendum on net zero and the country somehow voted against it — does this mean that when technological progress accidentally gets us to net zero by 2050 anyway, the government would have to intervene to pump out more CO2 to ensure we weren’t carbon neutral?”

Appetite for such a referendum seems limited at best, according to research on social media sentiment conducted for POLITICO by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. On Facebook and Twitter, there were two clear spikes of conversation around the U.K.-hosted COP26 climate summit and Farage’s recent campaign announcement. But in between those two, the issue appears to be met with near silence.

“There is little sustained, grassroots interest” on Facebook or Twitter, the group said. The spikes coincided with articles or interviews in the U.K. press — usually authored by or involving Farage or Tice — which were then shared by that pair and a handful of other media supporters. Those aside, few influential posters were actually driving the idea forward. In fact in the top twenty posts on Twitter, the second and fifth most shared were critical.

“We assume they will try to retrofit public support and argue this is a defining topic of British public life, until Westminster feels pressured into a response,” ISD’s King predicted.

‘Damp squib’

For their part, green groups are mostly unruffled by Farage and company’s arrival on to their territory. They see it as a fresh chance to push the government to do the long-term thinking about shifting the economy away from fossil fuels that has not yet followed on from the U.K.’s headline-grabbing commitments to net zero.

“Obviously don’t underestimate Farage, but it feels like a damp squib so far, and timing-wise it’s just terrible for them,” said Joss Garman, the U.K. Director of the European Climate Foundation. “He’s going out and making the case that we should use more gas when gas is six times more expensive than the clean energy sources that he’s trying to stop, and now he is doing that having described [Russian President] Putin as the politician he most admires. Voters aren’t stupid, he’s very exposed right now.”

Equally, the British government does not seem to be running scared. “Renewables are the quickest and cheapest route to greater energy independence,” Johnson wrote in an op-ed this week — even if he was unable to resist his own deployment of the “take back control” mantra.

Net zero skeptics may have managed to drag fracking back onto the agenda, but opposition to shale gas extraction within the Conservative Party remains fierce. One MP said a shift on fracking would mean the loss of a host of seats in key areas like Lancashire and Derbyshire, and that “No. 10 understands the electoral maths.”

Polls suggest support for tackling climate change is rising and being named by more voters as a priority. The caveat that the NZSG has in its sights is that not many are willing to pay more to contribute to the fight against climate change. 

In the meantime, it functions as a means of testing out a potential new power base of opposition, both within the Conservative Party and in the country at large, which could fill the space for so long occupied by Brexit. 

An adviser to the Conservative Party observed: “Baker et al are onto something, in that support for net zero is incredibly wide and incredibly shallow.”

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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