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Britain’s net zero wars heat up as both sides claim fresh MP backers

LONDON — There’s a tug of war going on over Boris Johnson’s promise to slash carbon emissions, as opponents and supporters both boast of fresh backing from MPs.

The Net Zero Scrutiny Group, a caucus of the Conservative Party determined to give Johnson’s green agenda a rough ride, was previously thought to comprise up to 20 MPs.

But its ranks have now swollen to 58, according to Craig Mackinlay, the Tory MP who chairs the group — and he’s citing concerns over the cost of living as a driving factor.

“There is a slow and steady rise in interest, not necessarily on the back of the Ukraine crisis but energy security has been put into stark focus because of it,” Mackinlay said.

He said a few more signups had been secured off the back of the U.K.’s oil and gas regulator moving to seal the country’s only remain shale gas wells in the north of England.

The rise in membership is part of the battle for hearts and minds in the U.K.’s governing party. The pro-green Conservative Environment Network (CEN) reported it now has 133 MPs signed up to its parliamentary caucus. That’s more than half the total number of Tory backbenchers.

Jeremy Hunt, the former health secretary and a potential future leadership contender, is the latest recruit. 

Hunt said the push to decarbonize Britain’s economy was needed “now more than ever, in light of the global gas crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” A transition away from fossil fuels would, he said, “lower people’s bills, strengthen our energy security and avoid the worst consequences of climate change.”

Eighteen Tories have joined the CEN since the start of the year, including a handful of those newly elected at the 2019 general election.

CEN’s membership overlaps with the separate Net Zero Support Group (NZSP), which was set up by former minister Chris Skidmore to defend Johnson’s drive.

The NZSP has around 30 members — although it’s already subject to testy briefings from some of those skeptical of the decarbonization drive.

One Tory MP from the Net Zero Scrutiny Group claimed Skidmore’s outfit was an invention of the whips — the government’s enforcers of parliamentary discipline — and that “people will join it because they want to be a minister.” 

Skidmore denied this, saying he’d never been contacted by the whips about the support group.

Mackinlay and his fellow travellers maintain that they support the principle of fighting climate change and are simply questioning where the cost will fall. That’s despite links between the group and the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which has a long history of denying climate science.

Johnson has promised a new strategy aimed at achieving energy security in the wake of the Ukraine invasion, but it faces delays amid reported disagreements within his Cabinet. 

Some ministers and Tory MPs have been arguing for the government to reconsider its moratorium on fracking in a bid to boost domestic production of gas, but Downing Street is moving to dampen expectations of any major rethink.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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