Crucial environment legislation must not be allowed to be sidelined or abandoned amid the distraction of a Tory leadership race, campaigners have warned.
Ministers openly admit they do not know what is going on with much of the legislation, but those who remain in government are working with skeleton teams to get bills in shape to be passed.
Two ministers at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) have quit so far, Rebecca Pow and Jo Churchill, both of whom were working on environment legislation making its way through parliament.
Churchill resigned on Wednesday but on Thursday she was supposed to be in committees about a gene editing bill that would liberalize rules around genetic modification for crops and potentially livestock. The Guardian has been told this has now been passed to the minister Victoria Prentis, who has not resigned.
Prentis says she believes it is her duty to stay in government and get bills passed, rather than quit. Sources close to her say those remaining in Defra are “working flat out” because “the environment cannot wait until October”, which is when Boris Johnson’s allies have suggested he should remain prime minister until.
Bills experts are particularly worried about include the environmental land management scheme, which has faced criticism from the Tory right as well as from Labor and the Liberal Democrats. This legislation would reward farmers for conserving nature, and Defra sources say net zero will not be reached without this new subsidy system.
Other, newer bills under threat include the highly protected marine areas consultation, which would ban all fishing in some fragile ecosystems in England’s seas. This work was under Pow’s purview and is only in the consultation phase. It is unpopular with many in the fishing industry and could be junked.
Other departments are also in turmoil. After Michael Gove was sacked as leveling up secretary he was replaced by Greg Clark. Clark is now being given the task of deciding on the proposed Whitehaven coalmine in Cumbria but has not worked in the department for years. On Thursday the government also announced it was postponing for a second time a decision on whether to approve the £20bn Sizewell C nuclear power plant in Suffolk.
The leveling up bill is also coming soon and campaigners say the legislation contains a number of threats to the ability of communities to demand higher environmental protection and standards in the planning system, replaces key environmental rules and fails to align plans with climate legislation.
The treasury, with its new chancellor, Nadhim Zahawi, is to decide whether to go ahead with a windfall tax on oil and gas companies. A decision on this is due next week, and while it is a popular measure with voters it is unknown whether Zahawi will press ahead with it, and whether he will remove the loophole that would provide tax relief for new oil and gas.
There could also be a wait of some time for a government response to the fracking review. The British Geological Survey has given its report on the safety and feasibility of fracking to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), but the results will not be seen until the government responds to it, with BEIS sources saying they do not know when that will be.
BEIS will also have to deal with the cost of living and energy crises, with insulation measures and direct support for the poorest households the most urgent priority. The energy security bill is also coming, with an opportunity to overhaul the energy market so the low cost of renewable electricity feeds through to consumers.
The Cop president, Alok Sharma, has not quit but is drawing on the talents of a much-diminished cabinet and a government in chaos. The UK still holds the presidency until Cop27 in November and the government has yet to decide on the formal emission-cutting pledges to be made.
What is more, a judgment on a judicial review of the net zero strategy is expected this month. Depending on what it finds, it may add even more work to the in trays of the remaining environment team.
Greenpeace UK’s policy director, Doug Parr, said: “No matter how to say things may seem in Westminster right now, when it comes to the climate crisis things risk getting much worse without immediate action. However, delays to decisions on whether or not to backtrack on coal and build a new mine, or waste untold time and money on a new nuclear power station that will only distract from genuine energy solutions, could be taken as positive, if they were set to be given the green light as rumors suggest.
“This parliamentary reset must deliver a new prime minister that will take bolder action on climate and nature. They must invest in real solutions like cheap, clean, homegrown renewables and fixing the vast number of cold, damp, energy-wasting homes. If not, we may lose even more time and find ourselves in a far worse position than we already are.”