Rishi Sunak’s U-turn over COP27 couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time given the hanging question mark over global climate commitments since the breakout of war in Ukraine.

It is likely that the Conservatives will be in government for the next two years. But whether or not they can win over voters in the future is another matter. Going forward, it’s clear the Tories will need to start winning over younger voters — an increasingly difficult aim for the party of prudence and tradition. The question is: can the Conservatives use the oldest Tory trick in the book and utilise something the party has been passionate about for years: a commitment to England’s pleasant pastures and preservation of the environment?

Will Sunak’s Cabinet Fare Better?

Rishi Sunak is the new prime minister and it’s safe to say he is greener than Truss. Unlike her, he is committed to reimposing the fracking ban. He also said repeatedly on the campaign trail last summer:

‘I have two daughters, both of whom are passionate environmentalists, and I am absolutely committed to leaving our environment in a better state for the next generation.’

Bold words. However, Sunak’s decision to appoint Thérèse Coffey as his environment secretary has sparked mixed feelings amongst environmentalists. Coffey has some experience in this area, being a junior minister at Defra for three years. She could be the one to help the party ease tensions with the RSPB and National Trust by utilising her experience. As well as this, she has more support than her predecessor, Ranil Jayawardena, who had no experience in this area. However, Coffey is likely to be less firm regarding reform and will likely opt for a more gradual approach to net zero. Some of her comments have proved controversial, such as when she said: ‘What next, no Spag Bol?’ when asked about increasing the tax on meat. As of 2021, a YouGov poll found that 14 per cent of 18-24-year-olds were vegan or vegetarian. To win this demographic, politicians must appreciate the concerns and lifestyle choices of this voter group.

The Importance of Growth

It’s no secret that the Conservatives are a pro-growth party that seeks a strong economy. But for a large chunk of the voting public, this winter will be all about finding the money to heat their homes.

For Sunak, growth and renewables seem to go hand in hand. During the leadership debate, Sunak spoke about the need to make the UK ‘energy independent.’ Offshore wind turbines have been cited as a potential way forward. While this may not be the solution to Britain’s energy crisis, it at least shows a commitment to greener living. Sunak’s eco-friendly stance has the makings of being a double positive. By pitching renewables as something that can give Britain an edge over other economies, it may help win over fellow Conservatives. Simultaneously, this is a nod to younger voters that says the Tories are a forward-thinking party which is committed to exploring renewable sources of energy and making it work.

Truss’ brief tenure as PM arguably corroded both the idea of growth and that of environmentalism. Her attempt to lift the fracking ban, suggesting a ‘nonsensical‘ moratorium on the green energy levee and her evident discontent for the green belt, all make Sunak a more promising leader. Despite falling behind during this summer’s leadership race, Sunak never wavered in his commitment to better environmental policy. This kind of consistency usually garners support.

Rebrand, Rewind, Recycle

As already explained, environmental policy is hardly a novel idea for the Tories given that party-safe seats tend to be in the countryside. This suggests that winning over younger voters may not require new or bold ideas. Rather, what is needed is a return to a more traditional form of conservatism that seeks to protect the country’s green pastures.

When Boris Johnson won the Conservatives a huge majority in 2019, the manifesto contained many elements of the pro-environment tradition celebrated by more moderate and left-wing Tories. The promise of: ‘Reaching Net Zero by 2050 with investment in clean energy solutions and green infrastructure to reduce carbon emissions and pollution,’ was a core part of their manifesto.

The Conservatives’ recurring problem of bringing in younger generations whilst still playing to their traditionally older base has a potential solution. The environment could be the best way of bridging the two voter groups given that this is a very traditional Conservative area of interest. Indeed, Margaret Thatcher recognised how important the environment was in an ever-globalising world. Thatcher opened the Hadley Centre for climate prediction and research in 1990. She spoke of the ozone layer and climate change and played a part in the rise of green ideas by getting the conversation going.

Moving forward, environmental policy may be the key the conservatives are looking for to win over young voters without losing their traditional base. Still, only time will tell if it will be enough to save the party from a total wipeout by 2025.

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