The fact that some environment groups and green Tory MPs are welcoming the prospect of Rishi Sunak as prime minister perhaps shows how far the Overton window has shifted in recent weeks.
Sunak has never been considered a fully signed up member of the green agenda, and even allies admit he saw the “costs rather than the benefits” of environmental action while chancellor. But after just over a month of a Liz Truss government, many see a Sunak premiership as a welcome relief. Under Truss, years of good relations with groups such as the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts and the National Trust were trashed, Tory infighting was provoked over her insistence on fracking, and her first actions in power included trying to ban solar power from most of England’s farmland and weakening environmental protections in the retained EU law bill, investment zones and rowing back on nature-friendly farming payments scheme.
Shaun Spiers, the executive director of the environmental thinktank Green Alliance, said: “Sunak said he wanted to stick to the 2019 manifesto, which was pretty good on this stuff, and Liz Truss wanted to junk it.”
Spiers hopes a new government could heal relations with green groups: “We need a secretary of state in Defra [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] who can demand respect – perhaps George Eustice or Tracey Crouch. After five years of really good relations between the environment groups and Defra was thrown away in six weeks, it would be good if he could rebuild.”
Green Tories backed Sunak too. Philip Dunne, chair of the environmental audit committee in parliament, is a bit of a rebel on the environment and held his colleagues’ feet to the fire over sewage dumping in England’s waterways.
He thinks Sunak has listened to his more eco-minded colleagues: “In the hustings in the summer, when there were lots of candidates, we had a conservative environment network hustings for each of them and they all made their environmental pitches. He was straightforward in saying he’s a believer in net zero Britain, he had a specific proposition for getting homes insulated more quickly and is pretty strong on nature.
“I was persuaded he is part of the broad consensus in the Conservative party that we need to leave the environment in a better state than we left it.”
The former chancellor’s environmentally minded colleagues are asking him to show his commitment to the cause by getting rid of, or at least reworking, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s retained EU law bill, which would remove hundreds of environmental protection laws.
Dunne said: “The EU law issue has potential to be significantly damaging, I am sure he will be looking very carefully at it.”
Those who served under Boris Johnson and believe in the environmental measures in the 2019 manifesto think Sunak would follow through on the promises made in it.
Rebecca Pow, a former environment minister who resigned after Partygate, said: “I’ve always known that Rishi completely understands the issue … He supported the findings of the Dasgupta review [on the economics of biodiversity] and then commissioned further work to find out what exactly our natural assets are.
“He was also the person at Cop26 who committed to making us the green finance center of the world … If he becomes prime minister [banks and businesses] will have the certainty that all the environment acts we just passed will go ahead.”
One former minister, who did not want to be named, said: “He would broadly follow the 2019 manifesto and definitely keep Elms [the nature-friendly farming subsidies]so much closer to the Johnson regime than Truss.”
It may be a low bar for a prime minister but many are saying Sunak listens to experts and follows evidence. “I think his whole approach would be less ideological and he has a great ability to pick up and understand complex detail quickly,” the former minister said.
Victoria Prentis, who was the farming minister in Defra under Johnson and is now a Department for Work and Pensions minister, said Sunak had been listening to those passionate about the environment, including his daughters, and that he “really gets farming”.
But Sunak has certainly never been a passionate environmentalist. He has always voted in line with his party on the environment – that is, largely against measures to prevent climate breakdown – and it is not something he has ever felt strongly enough to rebel on. He did, however, vote for more regulation of fracking in 2015.
Craig Bennett, the chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, hopes environment groups will have a better relationship with Sunak than they did with Truss.
“Very early on Liz Truss launched this attack on nature – we will have to see what Rishi Sunak does but he seems to be a bit more open to evidence, reason and logic,” he said.
But Truss has created a lot of work for Sunak to restore any green credentials the Conservative party once had.
Bennett said: “The first thing he should do is rip up the repeal of the retained EU law bill which of course threatens at least 570 pieces of environment legislation.
“Secondly he should scrap proposals for investment zones – they are a polluters’ charter setting up a race to the bottom for towns and cities in the UK, a competition of who can have the worst environmental standards.
“Thirdly, he should deliver the agricultural transition as promised in the 2019 manifesto, rewarding farmers handsomely for delivering for nature. He should also put the ban on fracking back in place as it is a total lie that it would do anything for energy security. Instead he should unleash investment for insulation in the UK.”
Another concern is that Sunak has the backing of vocal climate action skeptic MPs including Kemi Badenoch, who has called the net zero target “unilateral economic disarmament”, and Steve Baker, the founder of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group of Tory MPs.
Baker, when asked whether Sunak would be good for the environment as prime minister, archly said: “He will be amazing on everything.”