Conservative Party candidates across the UK appear to be following their party leader by failing to participate in public debates on the climate crisis.
From Glasgow to Hastings, hustings are being held to grill potential MPs about their plans to curb the nation’s emissions — but a number of Conservatives have declined to attend.
Local climate hustings took place during the previous general election but there are far more this year. Many are being hosted by local chapters of Extinction Rebellion or coalitions of green groups.
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Conservative candidate Sally-Ann Hart was empty-chaired during a hustings in Hastings and Rye. The constituency only needs a 0.32 percent swing to fall into Labour hands.
Rob Lee, Hart’s party agent, said he made the decision because he “couldn’t guarantee her safety” at the event, which was hosted by the local Extinction Rebellion group. However, Hart did attend the wider election hustings.
Other absent Conservatives were Laura Trott for Sevenoaks — one of the safest Tory seats in the country, being vacated by former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon — and Jeremy Quin for Horsham in West Sussex. Neither candidate responded to a request to comment on this story.
A spokesperson for XR Horsham claimed Quin declined to attend the hustings, which were held on a Friday as part of the global climate strike, because he disagreed with the concept of the school strikes. “A lack of proactive engagement with this growing group of people, many of who have always been Conservative voters, doesn’t give us reassurance or confidence that our voices are being heard,” they said.
In Bristol, six climate hustings are being held to cover each of the city’s electoral areas. Extinction Rebellion Bristol said Conservative candidates in all the constituencies refused to attend – including science minister Chris Skidmore. The local Conservative party disputed this, however, saying its candidates had not been invited to all these events. Bristol North West only needs a four percent swing for the Conservatives to win the seat from Labour.
Russell Mark Perrin, competing in Cambridge, did not appear at his local hustings, with the local Conservative office again claiming he had not been invited. Perrin, a science teacher, said climate change “is not something we can ignore” and stressed that he had voted to declare a climate emergency earlier this year in his role as a district councillor.
In Dulwich and West Norwood, the Conservative candidate Jane Lyons withdrew a few days before the hustings was due to take place. Jemima Hartshorn, founder of clean air campaign group Mums for Lungs who chaired the event, said she was “disappointed” by Lyons’ decision because there was significant local interest in environmental issues.
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Some absent Conservative Party hopefuls, including those standing for Broadland in Norfolk and Bristol West, told DeSmog they had pre-existing campaign commitments or family emergencies.
Will Quince, incumbent Conservative MP for Colchester, said he “politely declined” but would be “out with my team speaking with constituents on a range of issues including this one.” Colchester needs a five percent swing to fall into Labour hands.
The organisers of at least five other upcoming climate hustings contacted by DeSmog say they are still waiting for a positive response from their Conservative candidates, even though other political parties have agreed to attend.
The Guardian’s climate hustings is reportedly under threat because the Conservative representative pulled out, according to journalist Lucy Siegle, who was due to chair the event next week. She tweeted: “If Conservatives are so green, why can’t they talk about it? As we don’t empty chair, it’s off.”
Climate is expected to be a key topic in this general election. A YouGov poll in November found that the environment had risen to become one of the top three issues for voters, behind only Brexit and health.
And according to a survey by the New Economics Foundation and polling agency Survation, 68 percent of people in Labour-held marginal seats in North and Midlands considered climate change to be an important deciding factor for their vote.
Both Johnson and Brexit party leader Nigel Farage are expected to skip the event, which will be the first ever election debate specifically on climate change.
The broadcaster cancelled an earlier leaders’ debate snubbed by the Prime Minister, but this time is threatening to leave an empty chair in his place should he not attend.
According to Channel 4 News editor Ben de Pear the Conservative Party offered to have former Environment Secretary Michael Gove attend instead, but this was rejected as the other participants had agreed to take part on the basis that only party leaders were on the podium.
Boris Johnson’s absence would leave Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, Green Party co-leader Sian Berry and Scottish first minister and SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon to answer questions during the hour-long programme.
Editor’s note – Why DeSmog joined the call for a climate and nature debate
We are journalists, not activists. But transparency is at the core of everything we do. And we can think of few things more important than forcing political leaders – and ultimately the next Prime Minister – to explain, in detail, their plans to tackle the greatest challenge of a generation.
We exist to try and provide people with the best information possible about the UK’s climate policy. A climate emergency debate gives politicians the opportunity to explain from the outset what their climate plans are . We believe that is a democratic good.
So we were proud to be the first media organisation to sign up to the campaign for a debate on climate and nature. Let’s put the spotlight on the leaders, and make this the climate election it deserves to be. Find out more about the campaign here.
The Leaders’ Climate Debate will be broadcast by Channel 4 at 7pm on 28 November 2019.
Image credit: Chatham House/Flickr CC BY 2.0