Dominic Lawson: Boris Johnson, Flybe & Yellow Vests

Voters care about the environment but always revolt against carbon taxes

For a minister in Boris Johnson’s administration, things are a little confusing. On the one hand, the guidance from No 10 is that nothing must be done to detract from Britain’s claim to “global leadership in the fight against climate change” ahead of the UK hosting the UN climate change conference (COP 26) in November. On the other hand, ministers have been told that the highest priority of the government is to enhance “regional connectivity” and thus honour the electoral debt to those in the “left behind” parts of the country whose switch from Labour to Conservative was the principal cause of Tory triumph at the polling booths.

So what to do when financial crisis threatens to close Flybe? This is the business responsible for the majority of flights between regional airports in the UK, and unique in not being centred (unlike other airlines) on a London hub. Answer: the government allows Flybe a moratorium on about £10m it owes in air passenger duty (APD) collected from its passengers, and promises to review the APD charged on all domestic flights. Unsurprisingly, the Green MP Caroline Lucas was scandalised: “If APD was cut, it would make cheaper the fastest growing form of greenhouse gas emissions. That doesn’t make sense.”

It certainly doesn’t if you want to reduce the number of flights people take within this country, regardless of any consequences for businesses and families. That, after all, is the supposed point of APD (aside from the convenient fact that it raises almost £4bn a year in revenues for the insatiable exchequer). If such a charge deterred no one from flying, it would be an abject failure in terms of its ostensible purpose. And the people most likely to be deterred are those on the lowest incomes. If it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t work.

This form of “climate change” tax imposed on air travellers is higher in the UK than in any other country. The government would doubtless have boasted about it in plenary sessions of COP 26. But the public — that is to say, the poor saps who pay all the bills — have an annoying habit of disturbing the political consensus with their own discordant opinions. Actually, the Flybe bailout was not a response to voter discontent, so much as a prophylactic against the outcry the government feared would happen if it didn’t offer relief to a company on which a number of regional airports are almost entirely dependent.

This is a long way from the disturbances that set France ablaze last year, when hundreds of thousands took to the streets in protest at the fuel tax increases imposed by Emmanuel Macron. The French president had been acclaimed in all the most enlightened circles for this policy — to the extent almost of worship when he went to Trump’s America to tell them “there is no planet B”.

This did not impress la France profonde, where affordable fuel really is a matter of economic survival. Or as the gilets jaunes put it: “Macron talks about the end of the planet, but we worry about getting to the end of the month.” The president duly U-turned. Nothing less than his political survival was at issue — which for any head of government will always take precedence over the future of the planet.

In fact, the UK had its own earlier version of the gilets jaunesprotests. Even if most have forgotten, our politicians certainly haven’t. This was in 2000, when blockades of oil refineries by lorry drivers and farmers among others caused the Tony Blair administration to take emergency powers amid petrol rationing, panic-buying in supermarkets and cancellation of non-essential operations in the NHS. The “fuel protest” was a response to the inexorable increases in taxes on petrol and diesel: by 2000, tax accounted for 81.5% of the price charged to the consumer.

This was down to the fuel price escalator, a policy to increase duty annually by 3% (and, later, 6%) above the inflation rate. That fiscally avaricious scheme was launched by the Conservatives in 1993, on the pretext that the growth of car use was damaging the planet through increasing emissions of CO2. But in 2000 the Conservative opposition led by William Hague sensed how the wind was blowing and actually organised a “day of national protest” against the fuel price increases under the Labour government. Having been so far behind in the polls for so long that pundits wondered if they would ever return to government, the Tories suddenly overtook Labour. The Hagues spent the weekend with us at that precise juncture, and William seemed almost bemused by the sudden turnaround in his party’s fortunes. It didn’t last for him, however, since the then chancellor, Gordon Brown, hastily suspended the fuel price escalator. Not only has it never been reintroduced: Brown’s Conservative successor, George Osborne, twice abandoned fuel duty increases he had already announced in a budget statement.

It is in Australia, however, where the political battle over CO2 has determined the result of general elections. In 2013 the Liberals (their equivalent to our Conservative Party) rode to power with a promise to “scrap the tax” — the much disliked carbon pricing introduced by Labor. And the main electoral battle ground of last year’s Australian election was over the country’s future as the world’s biggest exporter of coal. The Liberals were thought certain to lose power, but Labor’s environmentally based strictures against extractive industries cost them too many seats in coal-producing areas. More generally, voters worried about the cost in jobs and prosperity.

The next day, in a report entitled “It was supposed to be Australia’s Climate Change Election. What Happened?” the New York Times wailed: “Australians shrugged off the warming seas killing the Great Barrier Reef and the extreme drought punishing farmers. In a result that stunned most analysts, they re-elected the conservative coalition that has long resisted plans to sharply cut down on carbon emissions and coal.”

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January 19, 2020 at 02:24AM

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