‘I don’t fancy it just yet,” said Allegra Stratton, the No 10 press secretary turned prime minister’s climate spokesperson, when she was asked about getting an electric car. She preferred her old diesel, thank you.

If this was merely the most memorable in a series of suboptimal comments from the person hired to communicate the urgency of Cop26, the climate summit, you couldn’t fault it as a summary of Boris Johnson’s position on decisive climate action. He doesn’t fancy it just yet.

Indeed, if Johnson ever pictured the UK’s hosting of this session as more significant than an extended posturing opportunity, he would hardly, earlier, have identified the home team as a perfect depository for spare or discarded staff and even (according to Dominic Cummings) as a usefully time-consuming distraction for his now wife. Last week, it belatedly entered Johnson’s head, by way of concealing some recent incivility, to offer Nicola Sturgeon a starring role at Cop26 (he’d forgotten saying she shouldn’t be “anywhere near” the proceedings, in Glasgow).

If anyone involved in Stratton’s climate redeployment did attempt to brief her on the unfamiliar territory, it evidently did not extend to suggesting a review of her own arrangements, lest through any example of exceptional ignorance or entitlement she exposed the government’s climate messaging to ridicule. Though had Stratton’s diesel embarrassment been a one-off (or explained by something more persuasive than her children’s toileting needs), it might not have secured her a place in the PR hall of fame alongside jeweller Gerald Ratner’s immortal (on one of his products) “it’s total crap”.

Alas, Stratton’s “I don’t fancy it just yet” came only days after she’d urged civilians to attempt “micro-steps” that will, assuming a lifestyle not unlike her own, make them, too, One Step Greener. Although her top tip – “Did you know, you don’t really need to rinse your dishes before they go in a dishwasher?” – is likely to become a classic, there were strong contenders on planet saving via bread (had anyone else discovered not letting it go mouldy?) and ecological know-how: “Does your brand of plastic bottle shower gel come as a bar in cardboard packaging?”

“I bet it does,” Stratton persisted, presumably confident that the sort of people who’ve never heard of soap would be unlikely to suggest there are more pressing actions, pre-Cop26, let alone recall that her employer has the environmental rectitude of an urban fox.

We can’t be certain, admittedly, that Stratton hasn’t tried the Johnsons with some bespoke tips on being One Step Greener. It wouldn’t be hard. “Did you know you don’t really need to entirely refurbish an inoffensive company flat with insanely vulgar new wallpaper and sub-colonial effects? I bet you don’t!”; “Save on Daylesford packaging: try cooking your own meals!”; “Think – do you really need that new boat?”; “Impress visitors by using a pre-loved space for briefings instead of splurging £2.6m on that ‘modern press facility’!” She might have added that the biggest challenge facing humanity is, according to one distinguished Cop26 attendee, overpopulation: “It is time we had a grown-up discussion about the optimum quantity of human beings in this country and on this planet.”

This fertility-phobic savant is, of course, the father of seven or so, Boris Johnson; though writing in 2007, when he’d only contributed around four additional Johnsons to a problem that threatened, he warned, to hideously overwhelm the planet: “You have a horrifying vision of habitations multiplying and replicating like bacilli in a Petri dish.” So, practise contraception? Nah. He doesn’t fancy it just yet.

Supposing a reformed Stratton addressed her habit of patronising people who, deliberately or not, have a smaller carbon footprint than members of her own circle, her legacy in trivialising action on the climate emergency and in depicting it as fully as upsetting to libertarians as to the impoverished may already be difficult to reverse. Among those last week applauding her defiant “I don’t want anybody to be telling me tomorrow that I need to spend thousands on a new car” was – writing in the same paper where she’d cast doubt on plate-rinsing – Bjørn Lomborg, the prominent “sceptical environmentalist”. He congratulated her for so capably undermining the official government message. “Maybe we are better off looking at what climate spokespeople like Ms Stratton do.”

A prime minister who was serious about Cop26 might at this point concede, even if it recalled the unedifying circumstances of Stratton’s original appointment, that it’s probably unhelpful for a climate spokesperson to compromise the summit’s president, Alok Sharma’s pronouncements about its “particular urgency”, yet more so actively to reinforce public complacency.

But as Johnson’s coal mine gag reminds us amidst lethal floods, record temperatures and forest fires, Stratton is merely amplifying his own climate preferences: performance over policies, every time. The chair of the climate change committee, Lord Deben, recently warned against this procrastination: “If all we do is promise, other people will not take us seriously… it puts the whole process [of Cop26] into jeopardy.”

That was before the climate spokesperson followed up her dishwashing hints with the assurance that One Step Greener is compatible with taking unlimited flights to, say, Cornwall, Mustique, a family place in Greece. “In terms of individual choice, the prime minister believes in it fundamentally,” she affirmed. “And people should make their own informed, educated decisions about where they go on holiday and how they go on holiday.” China, India and Russia probably feel much the same way about fossil fuels.

Is it too late then to contain Allegra Stratton? Or at least shift to a quieter, hybrid version before she sets fire to the entire summit? Even if Sharma’s rhetoric could mitigate the impact of her recent contributions it will take more than words to prevent Stratton’s catchphrase defining the UK’s response, under Johnson, to a planetary emergency: I don’t fancy it just yet.

Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist



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