Britain’s global climate crisis efforts will fail with Boris Johnson around

Tom Peck
·5-min read
<p>The prime minister chairs a session of the UN Security Council on climate and security at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on 23 February 2021</p> (Getty)

The prime minister chairs a session of the UN Security Council on climate and security at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on 23 February 2021


A whispered word slips out through the gap beneath the door of the shepherd’s hut. David Cameron, remember him? Former prime minister, for six years apparently, not that anyone could tell you much about it, and that’s no bad thing.

Nice guy, more or less. More, in the sense that he likes to wear a polo shirt and goes on holiday to Cornwall. And less in the sense that he will very occasionally lay the burden of a massive recession directly on to the shoulders of poor and disabled people.

Mainly remembered for very much not wanting to leave the European Union but accidentally making it happen. Less remembered for anything else at all. But he’s given an interview now, and he’s told Boris Johnson to be “muscular” in his interventions in the post-Covid economy.

Interjections from Cameron are rare indeed. Interjections from Cameron when he doesn’t have a book to promote are even rarer, but this latest self-insertion into public life does not appear to be connected to any kind of sales pitch for that thrice-delayed autobiography that took three and a half years to write and at least four times that to read.

Now he offers merely advice for the young Padawan, a mere two years his senior. The Covid recovery can be a green recovery he says: “You have to roll up your sleeves and be quite muscular in your interventionism.”

Of course, some of us have spent a fair bit of our lives following David Cameron to various shut-down workplaces, watching him remove his jacket, roll up his sleeves and gaze up at atriums full of office workers or down upon factory floors and men in hi-viz clothing. On many of these occasions, he would be telling them all about his new deal that he’d done with the European Union. Sadly, they would later decide that he had just not rolled up his sleeves and been muscular enough in his interventionism, but that’s by the by.

In explaining the power of the possible, and what governments can do if they are prepared to be muscular in their interventions, Cameron mentions his efforts to persuade the UK chief of the huge German company Siemens to build a wind turbine factory in Hull. (A few years later, he would also persuade the same man to let him launch his EU referendum campaign in his factory in Chippenham that manufactures train signals. He would arrive late when his train was delayed by a signal failure. A portent, perhaps.)

Johnson, of course, is conflicted. On the one hand, he is necessarily in thrall to the more radical “libertarian” wing of his party. The ERG, the CRG, call them what you like, they’re all the same, for whom no events of affairs in the life of man – running a country with 120,000 coronavirus deaths, for example – could ever persuade them the market doesn’t always know best.

The less radical wing was defenestrated at the general election. But he will also do whatever is necessary to keep his election-winning coalition, and if he senses the people at large are increasingly in favour of a green, interventionist recovery then that is what they will get.

The unknowable, naturally, is Johnson’s own convictions. For several decades, when asked if he had any convictions, he liked to reply, “Yes, one, for speeding, a long time ago.” How hilarious.

But there is enough accumulated evidence, over the years, to see that his instincts and those of Cameron are very different.

He likes to joke, now, about how twenty years ago, people said a wind turbine “failed to pull the skin off a rice pudding”, and such people have been shown to be wrong, knowing that the people in question are him. He wrote as much in The Daily Telegraph. The quote in question is his own.

But the Daily Mail, the Daily Express and to a limited degree The Sun are all rallying behind the climate crisis cause. Naturally, it’s disappointing that if they had done so twenty years ago, when global CO2 emissions were about half what they are now, we might be in a very different position. But that boat has sailed.

As things stand, it is hardly as if Johnson needs to be told to intervene. On his watch, the state has been directly paying the wages of up to nine million people for almost a full year.

Johnson loves shiny new things, be they a cable car, a garden bridge, or whatever else. The free market is good but not as good as Boris. He will hardly need to be told twice to build brand new, green infrastructure, ideally that he can contrive to have named after himself.

But the reality is that none of this stuff matters very much. In terms of cutting emissions and investing in renewable energy, Great Britain is a shining example to the world (to a great extent, thanks to the energy minister during the coalition years, and now leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey, though he does not get much thanks).

In ten years, British carbon emissions have fallen by about a third, but the global figure has risen by the same proportion, and it is only the global number that counts.

What counts, then, is in the year in which the UK is about to chair the G7 and host a big conference on the climate crisis, whether the world wants to listen to Boris Johnson.

Whether, in short, other people’s past policy successes will be sufficient, for example, for Joe Biden to look beyond the comments Johnson made about Barack Obama and his “part-Kenyan” ancestry, that prompted a former Obama staffer to refer to him as a “shapeshifting creep”. Whether European and European Union leaders want to look beyond long years of appalling comments about them.

What matters, in short, is if, having voluntarily given up its role as a global leader by removing itself from the institutions of the European Union, Johnson can find a way to make the world take the UK seriously. And given no one has ever done more to infantilise the country more than he has, the answer to that seems unlikely, however muscular one’s interventions.

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