OPINION - Tory leadership debate cancelled while London burns

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 (West End Final)
(West End Final)

There was something deeply weird about last night’s ITV leadership debate. Not the moment Rishi Sunak asked Liz Truss what presumably his team thought would be a zinger:

‘You’ve been both a Lib Dem and Remainer. Which one do you regret most?” (Link to the gaffe here)

Unfortunately for the former chancellor, this simply allowed Truss to trot out her ‘why I’m a Conservative’ line, making him look smug while alienating 48 per cent of the population.

I mean a few minutes earlier, when I asked myself why anyone was watching this at all, given that the vast majority of viewers wouldn’t have a say in the outcome. All democracies have their foibles, but this is a rather knotty one.

The only audience that mattered was 358 Conservative MPs and the roughly 100,000 party members, which inevitably skews the debate. It explains not only the obsession with unfunded and inflationary tax cuts or trans rights, but why the candidates are so mealy-mouthed on the question of net-zero.

Yes, this is going to be about climate change again. Yes, I know the data tells me you’d rather read about the Tory leadership contest. But stay with me, it’s about both.

A YouGov survey for The Times of Conservative Party members has found that only 4 per cent of those polled said that achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 was one of their three top priorities for the next leader.

Winning the next election came top, followed by tax cuts, raising defence spending and boosting the UK’s global standing. Reaching net-zero finished last of ten policy areas.

But here’s why that may not be as disastrous as it sounds. The public – people who won’t have a say in picking the next prime minister but will cast a vote at the next general election – *do* care about hitting net-zero.

You wouldn’t necessarily know it from following this contest, but only 13 per cent of voters blame ‘green levies’ for high energy prices, correctly surmising that skyrocketing bills are driven by an explosion in the wholesale cost of gas. Over the long-term they support decreasing our reliance on fossil fuels and boosting home insulation to cut demand (see more here).

I think what unnerved me most from last night was what Kemi Badenoch said in relation to the 2050 target, which sounded like she was letting voters into a secret but instead revealed a fundamental misunderstanding about the task ahead.

“We set a target for when none of us will be here to be accountable for it.” This statement contains a host of problems. First, 2050, I’m afraid to say, isn’t all that far away. Keynes was right, in the long run we’re all dead, but in 28 years’ time, Badenoch will be a sprightly 70 years old.

Given her majority of 27,000 in Saffron Walden, she can expect to still be an MP. Were she in the Lords by that time, she’d be younger than the average peer (I’m not kidding).

But more to the point, climate change is no longer a fuzzy, future tense phenomenon where we have to selflessly make changes today in order to safeguard future generations we’ll never meet. Just open your blinds and look outside. It is happening now.

And if the next Tory leader wants to win that fifth term, they will have to demonstrate more than the lukewarm and heavily-caveated enthusiasm for our legally-binding climate targets on display last night. Come 2024, the public will expect to hear how their prime minister plans to fight for a planet somewhere close to as inhabitable as the one previous generations of humans have enjoyed.

In the comment pages, Tanya Gold is in top form as she reveals she went to university with Liz Truss but please, don’t ask her anything about the experience. All she recalls is she was there, she had A-levels and a face.

Meanwhile, City Hall Editor Ross Lydall has a lovely piece on going to see the Lionesses with his seven-year-old daughter, and why football’s original spirit lives on in the women’s game.

And finally, we’ve done beavers, now wild bison are set to be released into ancient Kent woodlands to boost biodiversity. I for one welcome our new bovine overlords and I’d like to remind them as a trusted newsletter writer, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their shaded habitat.

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