By John Hipwood - Parliamentary correspondent
- Issue 2
John Hipwood sits down with Tim Yeo, Conservative MP for South Suffolk and chairman of the Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee
Sir Robin Day once sent a Cabinet minister disappearing from an interview in a huff by calling the Conservative defence secretary, John Nott, a “here today, gone tomorrow” politician.
The opposite description can be made of another Tory, Tim Yeo, who has been active as a Westminster parliamentarian over nearly three decades, holding down a variety of front-bench jobs, including trade and industry, health, education, transport and environment.
Over those years, it has been obvious to observers, that, although he is a traditional True Blue (light blue, that is, as a Cambridge graduate), he has also increasingly acquired green tinges.
He was first appointed an environment minister back in 1992 by John Major, and now he is chairman of the cross-party Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee.
Whenever broadcasters want a cool, calm and considered opinion on a climate change controversy, they turn to the MP for South Suffolk.
Although his background is in business (he was a director of an engineering company in the West Midlands for more than a decade), his interest in environmental issues has increased year by year during his career.
“There has been a long-term but steady increase in my interest in environmental issues, which have become more important to all of us for a number of reasons,” he told me.
“Now they are at the top of the agenda, not only for this country, but for the world.”
The task of the Energy and Climate Change Committee is to monitor the work of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, now headed by Ed Davey, who took over from Chris Huhne when his fellow Liberal Democrat had to step down because of an impending court case.
Mr Yeo thinks it’s too early to pass judgement on Mr Davey’s performance as Secretary of State, but he believes that the Government, and the nation as a whole, needs to step up the pace of its response to the climate change challenge.
“We have talked a good game for a number of years. The rhetoric is there but we still need to see it translated into action,” he said.
“We have a good understanding of the importance of addressing climate change, and the implications for energy policy.
“But the Energy Bill was late; and the Green Deal [designed to make homes and businesses more energy-efficient and reduce carbon emissions] is very important, but the details are unclear. We need more investment in low-carbon initiatives.
“David Cameron said the Coalition would be the greenest government ever, but that’s not difficult given the record of previous administrations. It’s very much work in progress, and my verdict so far would be ‘not proven’.”
Mr Yeo is, however, increasingly encouraged by the approach of British industry and commerce to the green agenda.
“I have seen remarkable changes. Over the the past 15 years the attitude of businesses has been completely transformed.
“In the 1990s, many companies were hostile to the climate change agenda, which they regarded as threatening to their businesses. The change of approach since then has been really rather impressive.”
The Tory MP believes that companies, established and fledgling, must build green issues into their business models – and that many deserve credit for doing just that.
“They are well ahead of the politicians. Having said that, there are opportunities for greater energy efficiency in both business and domestic life.”
Mr Yeo would like to see the Government take the lead in educating the public and businesses to a greater extent in what they can do to cut energy consumption.
He wants to see a “holistic approach” across Whitehall with every government department engaged in creating policies to address climate change, not just Ed Davey’s department.
That includes not only the obvious ones like transport, planning and housing, but also the Treasury where Chancellor George Osborne recently got into a spot of bother with environmentalists by seeming to suggest that the climate change agenda might be hampering some British industry.
In a speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester last October, he said: “We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business.
“So let’s at the very least resolve that we’re going to cut our carbon emissions no slower but also no faster than our fellow countries in Europe.”
Mr Yeo commented: “It’s natural and right that George Osborne should be pre-occupied with the economy in the short term. I think there was an over-excited interpretation of what he said, and that his statement was compatible with our broad aims. The proof will be in the eating in three years’ time.”
In the meantime he would like to see the Department for Business and Skills sharpen up its act, and voices disappointment that Vince Cable hasn’t been out there leading the way in promoting energy-specific policies.
The Conservative MP believes there are great opportunities for UK businesses to take advantage of the need to cut carbon emissions and be in the vanguard of green technologies.
“Two hundred years ago this country led the industrial revolution. We have made tremendous strides, but in the 21st century we should have the skills and resourcefulness to lead the modern industrial revolution.
“These issues are very important and they are not going to go away,” he warned.
However, the last thing Mr Yeo wants to see is the business community and the public descend into a “We’re all doomed. There’s nothing we can do” mood of despair.
“It’s important to have a message of hope. I don’t want an apocalyptic scenario where it’s all gloom and doom.
“We need good leadership. We are going in the right direction, but we need to go a bit faster.”
One person who will continue to set the pace (I suspect for some years to come) will be 67-year-old Tim Yeo MP.
He summed up his immediate future in politics: “While I am in Parliament, I intend to go on championing the cause. I see my task as trying to keep these issues at the top of the agenda and making sure that everyone is kept aware of what is at stake.”