David Cameron pledged to seek co-operation, not coercion, with business as he on Friday sought to reassert the Tories’ environmental credentials, setting out plans for a “green consumer revolution”.
The Conservative leader’s speech to a London event, his first on the environment since the spring, was designed to answer critics’ claims that the Tories have downgraded their commitment to green issues in the wake of the recession.
The speech omitted any explicit reference to increasing green taxes on individuals – a measure that could potentially cost the party votes.
In a later question-and-answer session, Mr Cameron said people “shouldn’t assume” a Conservative government would increase green taxes for companies only. But he stressed that any increase in environmental taxes would be offset by a reduction in other taxation.
Mr Cameron announced a new industry working group to promote environmental design for electrical goods – including an end to stand-by buttons on televisions – which the party said offered a model for how it wanted to work with business in government.
Greg Barker, the shadow environment minister who will lead the new group, told the Financial Times the aim was to gain industry consensus on which initiatives to prioritise.
“The idea is not to emerge with new regulation ... but to achieve change by deploying political capital, rather than bureaucracy,” he said.
The move marks a tonal shift by the opposition party from its “standing up to big business” rhetoric towards a deregulatory stance, chiming with Mr Cameron’s attack on “big government” in his party conference speech last week.
The Tory leader on Friday reiterated this desire to “call time on the big government approach”, saying regulation was “necessary sometimes, but it should not be the default setting of government”. Setting out his hope of building a “strong co-operative relationship between business and the next Conservative government”, Mr Cameron stressed his belief that “co-operation with business is always preferable to coercion”.
The Tory leader then mounted a head-on challenge to Labour’s claim to have the greenest credentials of the two main parties, claiming the last decade had been characterised by “mindless consumption and materialism”.
Lord Mandelson, business secretary, counter-attacked by lambasting the Tories’ smaller state philosophy.
In a speech in Oxford, he asserted that business needed an “activist” state to provide the right infrastructure, skills and finance support. “Arguing that government has no role ... sounds like an abdication of responsibility,” Lord Mandelson said.
But business groups welcomed the Tory emphasis on seeking alternatives to new statutory curbs.