In the run-up to Christmas, as the UK government was frantically attempting to manage the latest wave of Covid infections, the Conservative MP and long-time agitator Steve Baker was apparently touring the tea rooms of parliament trying to persuade colleagues to sign up to his latest cause.
The self-described Brexit hardman, who as the then head of the European Research Group had relentlessly harried Theresa May’s government over Brexit and then become a thorn in Boris Johnson’s side with his anti-lockdown Covid Recovery Group, had a new – and he believed potentially explosive – target: the government’s climate agenda.
“When the full costs of net zero start hitting us,” Baker told an interviewer recently, “we could end up with something bigger than the poll tax, certainly bigger than Brexit.”
Baker is a key member of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG), a Tory grouping set up by his fellow Conservative MP Craig Mackinlay last summer.
Although the group says it accepts the fundamental facts of the climate emergency and the need to reduce emissions, it argues the government’s net zero plans – widely viewed as vague and lacking sufficient ambition by activists and experts – are in fact too bold, dreamed up by out-of-touch elites, and would impoverish working people, “making them colder and poorer”.
Steve Baker is a key member of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group. Photograph: Tayfun Salcı/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock
Initially it appeared the group was gaining minimal traction. Evidence of the climate crisis was escalating as extreme weather events hit countries around the world and, in the run-up to last year’s UN climate summit in Glasgow, support for more urgent and far-reaching action to reduce emissions was growing.
However, as gas prices soared and concern about a growing cost of living crisis escalated, it appears Baker and Mackinlay sensed an opportunity.
According to several Conservative MPs who spoke to the Guardian, the pair stepped up their recruitment campaign in the corridors of Westminster ahead of the Christmas break, showing colleagues – particularly the new intake of Tory MPs elected in 2019 to represent former Labour-held constituencies – alarming graphs and data about the cost-of-living crisis. They argued the net zero target was becoming “politically toxic” and warned that the government’s obsession with the green agenda was putting their slim majorities at risk.
One “red wall” MP who Baker spoke to said: “We have been approached by older, more established Tories, who want us to say our constituents will be hit hard by net zero policies. It’s all a bit cynical.”
But at the beginning of January, their efforts appeared to bear fruit when 19 Tories, including the former cabinet minister Esther McVey, the senior backbencher Robert Halfon and several red wall MPs, identified themselves as members of the group, signing a letter to the Sunday Telegraph arguing for an end to green levies and calling for more fossil fuel extraction.
Profile Who is in the Net Zero Scrutiny Group? The Tory members Craig Mackinlay Elected: 2015
Constituency: South Thanet
Links: chair of the NZSG and member of the European Research Group (ERG) of Conservative MPs. Steve Baker Elected: 2010
Links: Trustee of the Global Warming Policy Forum (GWPF), and currently writes for their campaigning arm, Net Zero Watch. Key figure in the NZSG and the ERG. Peter Lilley Elected: Became a peer in 2018
Constituency: represented Hitchin & Harpenden for decades
Links: member and one-time trustee of GWPF Esther McVey First elected: 2010
Current constituency: Tatton Robert Halfon Elected: 2010
Constituency: Harlow Julian Knight Elected: 2015
Links: member of ERG Anne Marie Morris (currently independent) Elected: 2010 (but lost the Conservative whip in January)
Constituency: Newton Abbott Andrew Bridgen Elected: 2010
Constituency: North West Leicestershire
Links: member of ERG David Jones Elected: 2005
Constituency: Clwyd West
Links: Member of ERG Scott Benton Elected: 2019
Constituency: Blackpool South Damien Moore Elected: 2017
Links: member of ERG Mark Jenkinson Elected: 2019
Constituency: Workington Andrew Lewer Elected: 2017
Constituency: Northampton South
Links: member of ERG Karl McCartney Elected: 2010
Constituency: Lincoln Marcus Fysh Elected: 2015
Links: member of ERG Greg Smith Elected 2019
Constituency: Buckingham Lee Anderson Elected: 2019
Constituency: Ashfield Philip Davies Elected: 2005
Links: member of ERG Adam Holloway Elected: 2005
Links: member of ERG Craig Tracey Elected: 2015
Constituency: North Warwickshire Show Hide
It was the first time members of the group had gone public.
The story was picked up across the media: “Gas prices: MPs and peers urge PM to act on energy bills,” reported the BBC; “Pressure grows on Boris Johnson over energy bills,” wrote the Daily Mail. The message was amplified on TV and radio, and for many climate scientists it suggested the consensus around the need for climate action in Conservative ranks – however inadequate it had been – was under threat for the first time in years.
But many of those initial reports did not mention the links of some of the group’s key members. Baker is a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a prominent publisher of material questioning the consensus on climate science in the UK since it was launched by the former cabinet minister and long-time climate denier Nigel Lawson in 2009 .
The GWPF is characterised by opponents as a source of climate science denial – a claim it denies.
During the Cop26 climate summit last year, Lord Lawson wrote an article arguing that “global warming is not a problem”, defended burning fossil fuels, and said carbon dioxide’s “principal effect” is the growth of plants.
Baker declined to be interviewed for this piece, pointing to Mackinlay as a spokesperson. Mackinlay also declined to be interviewed.
Craig Mackinlay, the Conservative MP for South Thanet. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA
Three members of the NZSG did respond, stating they did not dispute climate science or the need to decarbonise, although they did object to the government’s current net zero plans.
Mark Jenkinson, the MP for Workington, who called those who opposed the Cumbria coalmine “climate alarmists”, said he was confident it was possible to reach net zero “without making my constituents poorer”.
He added: “I’m delighted that we’re having the adult discussions that so many outside the Conservative party are afraid of having, around the ongoing need for UK oil and gas for transition to net zero by 2050 and beyond it.”
Halfon said: “Millions are now being hit desperately hard by the cost of living crisis with heating and fuel bills soaring. We cannot sacrifice any further their ability to cope on the altar of climate change.”
‘Let’s all relax’
In the autumn, as the GWPF campaigning arm rebranded itself as Net Zero Watch, with a stated aim to “scrutinise policies, establish what they really cost, determine who will have to pay”, Baker and Mackinlay were apparently stepping up their Net Zero Scrutiny Group recruitment drive.
Tories who spoke to the Guardian said the pair showed MPs polling that had been commissioned by the GWPF that set out a stark picture of a population deeply concerned about the cost of living and wary of paying “higher taxes to help reach net zero”.
Peter Lilley, a former cabinet minister and self-described “global lukewarmist”, also signed the NZSG letter to the Sunday Telegraph and is a former trustee of the GWPF.
The GWPF confirmed that both Lord Lilley and Baker attended its annual lecture at the end of November, where the main speaker, the US scientist Prof Steven Koonin – who admits the climate is changing and humans are responsible – questioned the scientific consensus around the climate crisis.
During his talk Koonin told the audience: “The first thing we can do is get authoritative bodies – the royal societies, the US national academies – to stand up and say there is no climate crisis. This is an issue, we can deal with it in due course – but let’s all relax.”
The Guardian showed a video of the event to three leading climate scientists – Simon Lewis, a professor of global change science at University College London, Julia Steinberger, a professor of societal challenges of climate change at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and a lead author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Prof Peter Stott, who leads the climate monitoring and attribution team of the Hadley Centre for Climate Science and Services at the Met Office in Exeter.
They suggested that the talk “cherrypicked data” and “distorted” the facts of climate science. And they questioned whether members of the UK’s ruling party should be getting their evidence about the climate crisis from such events.
“It is really deeply worrying that members of parliament are going and getting their scientific information from there,” said Lewis.
Steinberger suggested the talk was “a classic, if rather polished and polite, example of distorting climate science”.
In response, Koonin expressed disappointment at the criticisms. He added: “Viewers of my talk will see that my points are specific, relevant and well supported by references to the literature and data.”
After initially talking to the Guardian for this article, both Lilley and the GWPF did not respond to subsequent written questions.
There are tentative signs that the attack on the net zero agenda appears to be taking root. Members of the group have regularly surfaced across the media over the past few weeks to question the government’s plans. Last week a front page of the Daily Telegraph quoted “senior cabinet ministers” urging the government to “rethink its net zero plans”, with one arguing we should “not be running towards net zero so aggressively”.
Outside parliament, a slew of rightwing commentators and talking heads – from Andrew Neil to Nigel Farage – have portrayed the climate agenda as a classic culture war, “dreamed up in the kitchen diners of Notting Hill, with no understanding of real people’s daily lives”, as Julian Knight, a Tory MP and member of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group wrote in a report last year.
James Murray, the editor of the website BusinessGreen, said the emergence of this anti-net-zero narrative, and its amplification in sections of the media, threatened to unite the libertarian right and culture warriors against the need for urgent climate action.
“The idea we should dilute and delay climate action is unpopular with the public, runs counter to global investment trends, and is contrary to the government’s own manifesto, but environmental campaigners and green businesses are still hugely concerned that they could be dragged deeper into a culture war that seeks to politicise any and all efforts to decarbonise.”
He said soaring gas prices and the cost-of-living crisis presented a “huge opportunity” for those intent on scrapping “green policies they are ideologically opposed to and increase the UK’s reliance on polluting fossil fuels”.
“The challenge for the government is that concerns over some of the near-term costs associated with the net zero transition are valid, and as such there is an urgent need to both promote the overwhelming economic benefits of climate action and ensure any costs are fairly shared.”
Asad Rehman, an influential climate justice campaigner and director of War On Want, said the emergence of opposition to the government’s climate plans underscored the need for a global green new deal.
“Climate justice means addressing the systemic issues of economic injustice and poverty that sit at the heart of the climate crisis. If it doesn’t, it simply hands an opportunity for rightwing populists to pit those already struggling to make ends meet against any proposals to transition our economy.”
The most comprehensive analysis of the path to net zero was published by the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the UK government’s statutory adviser, which has repeatedly said the costs of action are small and diminishing, at less than 1% of GDP by 2050, while the costs of inaction are large and rising.
Dr Ajay Gambhir, a senior research fellow at the Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment, said that as innovation accelerated, even the CCC’s costings were probably an overestimate and did not take account of the many co-benefits of climate action, including cleaner air and water, more biodiversity, millions of well-paid green jobs and lower energy bills.
It is not just environmentalists who champion net zero. Last week, Alistair Phillips-Davies, the chief executive of one of the big six energy companies, SSE, said: “Net zero is not only an environmental decision, it’s a rational economic one. Investing now will not only reduce our future exposure to gas markets but it will also support jobs and growth.”
But as instability continues to engulf the Conservative party and Boris Johnson – seen as the party’s standard-bearer for net zero – appears weaker by the day, more voices, from local Tory councillors to rightwing commentators, are linking the cost-of-living crisis and the government’s green agenda.
Lilley told the Guardian that Conservative MPs were being newly recruited to the group in the tea rooms of parliament. He said: “The Net Zero Scrutiny Group wasn’t my idea – it came up in discussion over a cup of tea in the tea rooms. It may well have been Steve Baker who was the inventor.”
The peer said his colleagues in cabinet were “trying to show how virtuous they are” by pushing climate policies – and believes Britain is likely to have a gilet jaunes-style uprising over energy costs.
“Whenever the cost of decarbonising has become a political issue, the advocates – the opponents of imposing those costs on people’s budgets – have won. Look at the gilet jaunes in France, the Netherlands municipal elections, the Australian elections. People agree with tackling global warming in the abstract – but they aren’t prepared to pay for something that won’t have an impact perhaps for a century or more,” he warned.
There is some pushback from pro-climate action MPs within the Conservative party. Chris Skidmore, the MP for Kingswood and a former energy minister, has set up a new Net Zero Support Group. “I was a bit shocked about the amount of coverage [the Net Zero Scrutiny Group] was getting,” Skidmore said. “And I thought it doesn’t speak for me or the many many other Tory MPs who do support net zero and do support action on climate change.”
He added: “My fear is that this group creates a narrative that it is the cost of green energy that is creating the energy price crisis – that it is either tackling the climate crisis or tackling the cost-of-living crisis.”
Last week, the Tory peer and leading Conservative environmentalist Zac Goldsmith said: “Ninety per cent of the global economy is committed to net zero. The politics is clear … Choosing to be the outlier would be insane.”
A current environment minister said Baker and Mackinlay’s group was of no concern to the government and was being widely ignored. But in a recent interview, Baker was unequivocal about the potential of the net zero campaign.
“I’ve started three big projects of MPs on the issue of the day – one on Brexit, one on Covid, which of course affected everybody, and one on net zero.
“Of the three of them, the one that grew fastest by miles was net zero, simply because members of parliament know this is going to hit all voters and hit them hard and hit them fast and they aren’t going to like it.”