Johnson called on to distance himself from ‘climate sceptics on his backbenches'

Labour has called for Boris Johnson to distance himself from “the climate sceptics on his backbenches” amid reported plans for the establishment of a new Tory group seeking to question the “consensus” on the urgency of achieving net zero by 2050.

Labour has called for Boris Johnson to distance himself from 'the climate sceptics on his backbenches'. Photograph: WPA Pool/Getty Images

It was reported earlier this week that plans are afoot for a new Tory backbench group aimed at questioning the speed required and cost of meeting net zero targets, which green groups say has the potential to become an “attack on the prime minister”.

The group is to be led by MP Craig Mackinlay, who was previously deputy leader of UKIP, and recently wrote in Conservative Home that the government is "fooling itself" if it thinks it can go down the net zero path without electoral damage.

Steve Baker, Conservative MP for Wycombe, is also reported to be a key player in the new group. He recently became a trustee of Lord Lawson’s prominent climate sceptic group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, and is a major figure in the influential Conservative backbench European Reform Group.

Commenting to ENDS, a Labour Party spokesperson said the prime minister should distance himself from the climate sceptics on his backbenches and that giving “credence to the views” of those questioning the need to deliver net zero to protect people and planet “risks seriously undermining the UK's credibility as hosts of COP26”.

According to reports, the group does not intend to deny climate science, but will seek to highlight the anticipated costs associated with meeting the government’s targets, and ask for more transparency over the data being used to drive the decisions.

Labour’s spokesperson said that the government is already “failing to act with the urgency, ambition and leadership needed” to tackle climate breakdown, calling for a £30 billion green stimulus to create jobs and tackle the climate crisis.

Green groups have also reacted to the news, with NGO coalition group Green Alliance’s senior political adviser, Joe Tetlow, saying that if the group is set up “to pose important questions about how we decarbonise the economy by 2050, then that is a useful thing in a parliamentary democracy”. 

However, he warned that a backbench group “seeking to undermine [the Conservative’s] own manifesto pledge is much more concerning – and an attack on the prime minister”.

The 2019 Conservative manifesto committed to “lead the global fight against climate change by delivering on our world-leading target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050”, and Tetlow said that the party “were elected on that manifesto in the same way they were committed to getting Brexit done, deal or no deal. The public are no fools and would not forget such a u-turn lightly”. 

He added that he would neither “overestimate or dismiss” the potential for the backbench group at this stage, and called for the government not to leave a vacuum and instead be “confident in its answers” and to come forward and publish delayed strategies, such as the Heat and Buildings Strategy.

In a recent opinion piece for Conservative Home, Mackinlay wrote that the Climate Change Committee (CCC) is “a significant player in the political debate around net zero, often explicitly directing government policy, while being totally unelected and unaccountable”.

Responding to these comments, Sam Hall, director of the Conservative Environment Network, defended the committee saying that it “plays a central role in our national debate on climate change”, and provides parliamentarians from all parties with rigorous analysis and research that helps them scrutinise government policy. 

“Conservatives should feel political ownership of the CCC”, Hall told ENDS, adding that “it was created by the Climate Change Act, which was passed with overwhelming Conservative support, and its current members were appointed by Conservative ministers. It is right that the government, and ultimately parliament, has the final say on whether to adopt its recommendations".

The reaction comes as Labour called for a “hard-edged” end date for oil and gas exploration and accused Boris Johnson of being “missing in action” ahead of COP26.

In a statement, a government spokesperson said: “We are taking world leading steps to tackle climate change, and our 10 Point Plan – part of our mission to level up across the country – will ensure that we build back greener from the pandemic.

“This government has already published decarbonisation plans for energy, industry, transport and oil and gas with more to come before the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, including a comprehensive Net Zero Strategy.” 

This article was updated to include the government's statement