The Conservative chair has announced that Boris Johnson will kick off a two-year election campaign from May, as he hit out at “net zero dogma” and sought to pitch Labour as still linked to Jeremy Corbyn.
Oliver Dowden, the party co-chair and former culture secretary, made his comments in a speech at the Tory spring conference in Blackpool, as the party attempts to draw a line under the prime minister’s troubles over alleged lockdown-breaking parties. As part of an attempt to downplay the scandal, the Brexit minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, dismissed the furore over Partygate as “disproportionate fluff” compared with the crisis in Ukraine.
Having survived calls for his resignation from Tory MPs, Johnson appears to be trying to show the party and country that he intends to fight the next election. Dowden announced that the Tories would open the candidate list for the next election and declared: “The challenge starts this May.”
He said the election would look a lot more like 2015, when David Cameron fought against Ed Miliband, than 2019, when Johnson took on Corbyn.
“We are going to have to fight this one seat by seat, promise delivered by promise delivered, doorstep by doorstep,” he said. “And from May, we will begin our two-year election campaign with the launch of our target seat strategy, building on the experience of the 40:40 campaign in 2015, building capacity, developing profile and framing the choice.”
In a sign that the Conservatives are still concerned about the threat of Nigel Farage taking voters on the right, Dowden hit out at “net zero dogma” in comments that will dismay many concerned that the Tories are prepared to water down their commitments to tackling the climate emergency.
“I really think the British people want to see a bit of conservative pragmatism, not net zero dogma,” he said. “We are Conservatives. We exist to conserve. We will get to net zero. Of course we will save the planet. We just don’t want Vladimir Putin taking it over while we are doing it.”
His comments coincided with a speech from Johnson at the Scottish Conservatives conference, where he sought to draw a dividing line with the Scottish National party and Labour by suggesting they were pushing to go too fast on “net zero”.
Johnson’s own climate advisers on the committee on climate change have advised a “presumption against” new exploration in the North Sea, but he said: “Are we not crazy to be talking about completely shutting down domestic production?
“Only to buy oil and gas at a vast mark-up from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And yet that unbelievably is the stated policy of the Scottish National party and the Labour party.”
Johnson spoke just after the Scottish Tory leader, Douglas Ross, a week after he withdrew his letter of no confidence in the prime minister, citing the war in Ukraine.
Dowden also made it clear that the Tories were planning to portray Starmer at the next election as “dull … uninspiring … and bereft of ideas”. He also sought to claim that “the Corbynistas are still there”, reviving the idea of Labour as a danger that was used in the 2019 campaign.
“Let’s not be complacent about the threat that Starmer’s party still poses,” he said. “Starmer can’t resist kowtowing to the cancel culture brigade because his base are the cancel culture brigade.”
The Conservatives had been widely thought to be planning an election for May 2024 but the imminent repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act means it could more easily be called sooner.