Political Storms and Climate Change

In the last four years in which I’ve had the privilege of serving as your MP, I’ve been working to protect the natural environment which makes our area so unique. Of course, we all remember the terrible flooding in 2014 that devastated Muchelney and other areas around Langport. The recent scenes of flooding in Yorkshire have reminded us of the danger of flooding – and its terrible effects.

Alongside my ongoing support for the Somerset Rivers Authority and the enormously valuable mitigation measures it provides, I introduced a Bill to Parliament in 2017 after a year’s work – the Rivers Authority and Land Drainage Bill. Having devised and drafted the Bill and lobbied for Government support, it sailed through its Second and Third Readings in the Commons. However, it was brought down in the House of Lords.

Had it secured Royal Assent before Parliament dissolved, the Bill would have given the Secretary of State the power to create new Rivers Authorities where there was an identifiable need and local demand – and would also have removed obstacles that currently make it difficult for internal drainage boards to get the resourcing they need to exist on a permanent footing.

Flooding is a continuous risk for our part of Somerset and it’s imperative that the work that’s done to mitigate that risk is equally continuous – and that the Somerset Rivers Authority can plan with the long-term in mind.

Given that it has Government support, I will be seeking either to reintroduce the Bill early in the next Parliament – or ensuring its provisions are attached to another, wider piece of legislation. In fact, I spoke in the Queen’s Speech debates a couple of weeks ago to make just that case. If I am fortunate enough to be re-elected on December 12th, I will do everything possible to ensure our area – and other areas affected by flooding – are given the protection they need.

As well as this very specific local challenge, I have also spent a great deal of time over the last two years working on national environmental measures. You may have seen an article in The Guardian which sparked a great deal of debate around the Government’s record on climate change. Below, you will find a response to that article which also outlines my own record on this issue of (literally) existential importance for us all:

Political Storms and Climate Change:

Recently, I (along with pretty much every other Conservative MP in the country) was engulfed by something of a political storm. A few Fridays ago, The Guardian published an ‘analysis’ of MP’s voting records in respect of climate change – designed, apparently to “hold MPs to account” and “provoke debate” ahead of the next general election. At face value, both these aims are pretty unexceptionable and tally, completely, with the role of a free press. 

It won’t come as a shock to anyone to suggest that The Guardian is (like every one of our other papers) trying to press forward a political position in order to secure opinion to match their own. We haven’t quite wriggled free from the moorings of fact in the same way that we see in the US – where the political picture on Fox News is literally irreconcilable with that on CNN or another, more centrist platform. But I fear we’re getting there.

The methodology of The Guardian is not only almost surreally wrong, but is grossly misleading.  As a result, I have to say that there is much disquiet about this particular article and the attention it has been receiving, and there was talk of referring the article to the Press Complaints Commission. Of course, people must be absolutely free to choose their own opinions – but presenting them with such distortions impedes that process rather than enhancing it.

The “analysis” this article purportedly offers is nothing of the sort. And “provoking debate” based on a set of narrow and misleading premises is the opposite of genuine political discourse. It aggravates an already creeping sense that facts are so contested that emotion and instinct (rather than facts) offer the safest guide to political decision-making.

We’ve seen this happen many times before - with the right-wing press doing the same thing (to the Opposition) and The Independent (to the Government) - each trying to move public opinion in the direction they would like.  Obviously, in the case of The Guardian, it is to get the Tories out of government.  There’s nothing wrong with having that view of course, unless they manipulate the facts in order to deliberately and maliciously mislead the unwary.

Many will already be aware of how this process operates – but just in case, it unfolds like this.  The Opposition puts forward debates and votes on ‘Opposition Days’ in Parliament.  The motions to these debates will be put in a form something like this:  “This House regrets the Government’s appalling handling of the economy, calls on the Prime Minister to resign, and demands that the Chancellor of the Exchequer asks the Government immediately to begin a new incentivised programme of carbon reduction to reduce the UK’s emissions by 30% by 2022” or something. 

Obviously, such a motion is politically, not environmentally, motivated.  The Opposition know that no member of the governing party can vote for this motion, as it contains an entire herd of Trojan horses (regrets the handling of the economy, PM to resign).   Then, usually the next day, The Independent or The Guardian will splash a headline along the lines of “These Are The Tory MPs Who Voted Against Carbon Emission Reduction”, and will list pretty more or less every Tory MP.  Then, understandably outraged, lots of angry people write to their MPs, we all get threats and trust ebbs a little further.

Such votes, or similar hostile amendments to Bills, are put forward fairly regularly.  They are all put forward with political intent, and with the collusion of friendly journalists (or at least with a knowledge of how the media will react).   Exactly the same thing would happen to Labour MPs when they were in power, with the right-wing press playing the same game.   This is the circular, self-referential world that politics has become.  The ordinary woman and man in the street has no idea what’s going on and are the victims – they’re pawns in the game.

So, in this particular article, someone at the Guardian had the bright idea of collating lots of these votes relating to the environment, and – pretty easily – giving the impression that practically all Tory MPs are either negligent or malevolent in respect of their approach to climate change.  They could just as well (and they probably will, unless the PCC intervenes) choose another subject and do it again.

In my own case, it’s probably worth mentioning that I was only elected in 2015, so 10 of the 16 votes used in their ‘methodology’ happened before I was even an MP.

Also, these are selected votes.  So it doesn’t take into account the work I have been doing for years as a member of the Conservative Environment Network – such as helping secure the largest increase in solar power in our history (as you know, 99% of solar installations have been since 2010), the largest off-shore wind farm in the world (in Walney), the world’s largest protected marine environment and  passing Net Zero by 2050 – the first major nation to do so in line with the IPCC recommendations. IT also fails to mention the Government’s pledge to plant 1.5 billion trees by 2015, the restoration of peatlands, the establishment of the new Environmental Watchdog and the instigation of legally binding targets for air, water, wildlife, green spaces and on pollution and waste.

The Guardian may also have missed the votes on the legislation which has meant that 2018 was the cleanest and greenest year ever for electricity – with the first full week with no coal energy since the 19th Century.  Also, the fact that renewable energy is at a record high and has had more than £52 billion invested in it since 2010.  Also missing are the votes which have ensured that greenhouse gas emissions have come down by 23% over the last nine years.

I have been campaigning to scrap the VAT hike on solar and batteries, and, yes – ditch fracking.  I have written to the government to ask for a Royal Commission for a new, green planning regime, greening the green belt.  I have asked the Government to clamp down on pollutants, introduce new pollution taxes and higher animal welfare standards, banning all live exports and stricter licensing on live testing.   I have campaigned with the Department for International Development for an increased portion of UK aid to be spent on climate change and biodiversity decline – helping developing countries to leapfrog coal (which is really beginning to work), and I wrote, with several other cross-party MPs, for the UK to host COP 26 – which I’m glad to say we achieved.

I could go on, but hope that some of the above give a sense of the frailties of The Guardian’s chosen methodology.  I must say I have had great meetings with Extinction Rebellion, both in Somerset and in Westminster, and regularly meet people across the political spectrum on every aspect of ongoing environmental campaigning.   I myself have a car which runs on biomethane (which is the cleanest possible fuel, though, sadly my car is broken at the moment!), and my wife has an electric hybrid.  I am keen to do all I can.

Unfortunately, the debate will now centre around the dubious methodology of The Guardian – rather than focusing on the colossally important question of climate change itself. There is a grim irony here. Articles such as this don’t merely politicise climate change – but put the focus squarely on the politics and leave the issue they ostensibly seek to highlight in the shadows. And as I say, I don’t claim a monopoly of virtue for either side – we see the same methods with the same, misleading results, from papers and media across the political spectrum.

Democracy relies on open debate – a robust exchange and examination of competing ideas. But creating anger through misrepresentation and a carefully curated set of unrepresentative votes isn’t “provoking debate” in any meaningful sense. The only things provoked here are irrational (but understandable) fury from the public and frustration from those who are made its target.