Cameron outmanoeuvres Brown in battle for the green vote

There are many indicators that reveal when a government is in terminal decline.

In-fighting is always the most obvious; closely followed by a propensity for operational blunders, a paucity of new policies, and an indefinable jadedness that infects all government spokespeople.

But the one that really consigns a government to the scrap heap, that hammers the final few nails into the coffin and tells them that their time is up, is when the opposition start having the better ideas.

As the last UK election proved, voters will put up with a largely unpopular and unloved government if they conclude, quite rightly in the case of Michael Howard's Tories, that the alternative will be worse.

But if the opposition is capable of running on a platform that reaches far beyond the already powerful "time for a change" message, and instead focuses on precisely why their policies are better, then the sitting government really is in trouble.

It is precisely this that the Cameroons are trying to achieve and no where is it more obvious than in their environmental policies.

Cameron has attracted some flak in recent months for the apparent dampening of his initial enthusiasm for the environment. But with his recent pledge to effectively ban new coal-fired power stations without carbon capture systems being followed today by the high-profile commitment to scrap plans for a third runway at Heathrow in favour of a high speed rail link between London and the North, he has firmly wrested back control of the green political agenda.

What is most significant about the high speed rail story (besides the fact that it was leaked to The Guardian newspaper, a clear indication that the Tories are targeting left of centre green voters who would previously have rather removed several of their limbs than vote Conservative) is that it is exactly the type of policy that a decade ago you would have expected Labour to come up with.

It has always been a national disgrace that one of Europe's most compact and congested countries has one of its slowest rail networks and in proposing a genuine TGV style line, Cameron gets to look not just green, but modern, innovative and technologically literate as well.

While Brown has sought to appease the old school business lobby and push through Heathrow, Cameron it seems has actually read all the reports concluding that airport expansion is not compatible with meeting climate change targets and proposed an alternative that at first glance looks attractive to both environmentalists and businesses.

Similarly, the commitment to impose California-style standards on operators of coal-fired power stations to ensure that CCS systems are fitted serves to highlight the irresponsibility inherent in the government's hope that the market mechanisms built into the EU's emissions trading scheme will gently coax energy companies to install the technology.

Even Mayor Boris' slightly madcap idea to replace Heathrow and Gatwick with an airport in the Thames estuary looks more innovative, exciting and environmentally responsible than the government's plans for a third runway.

It is indicative of how far a supposedly environmentally-conscious left of centre government has fallen, that it is allowing the opposition to dominate the green thinking.

The government has plenty of good green policies in place, including the Climate Change Bill, the zero carbon buildings target, the carbon reduction commitment and plans for a huge expansion in renewable energy. But that has not stopped it being completely out-manoeuvred by an opposition that instead of focusing on complex policy mechanisms such as carbon trading and the renewables obligation, has outlined exciting plans for the kinds of environmental projects voters can visualise and care about.

Everyone knows how great a high speed rail network would be for the UK, just as everyone hates the idea of living near a coal-fired power plant and everyone interested in installing a solar panel would love to get paid extra for the power they generate. In contrast, making governments legally responsible for delivering carbon cuts might be constitutionally innovative, but it does not resonate with businesses or voters, particularly when no one seriously believes a serving government will ever allow itself to be charged under such legislation.

Of course, it is easy to promise "jam tomorrow" when you are in opposition and it will be informative to see how many of the huge green infrastructure projects Cameron is proposing live on when and if the Tories gain power. Whether he would actually block new coal plants and runways when faced with the prospect of an energy gap or City lobbyists claiming London is losing business to Frankfurt and New York remains to be seen. Just as it is unclear how he would pay for a high speed rail link and other low carbon projects while leading a party for which the prospect of raising taxes is anathema.

But for now, both the Tories and the Lib Dems appear to have a much clearer handle on the type of policies that are required to deliver a genuinely low carbon economy than Gordon Brown, and unless he follows up this autumn's climate change bill with some hefty green policy commitments all those indicators that the government is in terminable decline will look ever more accurate.

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