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25 July 2023

The Tories just want to watch the world burn

Rishi Sunak is putting the Conservatives’ narrow partisan interests ahead of the common good on climate change.

By Martin Fletcher

Back in July 2019 the Conservative Party committed an act of grotesque irresponsibility: facing an electoral rout after Theresa May’s wretched premiership, it elected Boris Johnson as its leader. Tory MPs knew full well that he was a narcissistic charlatan, but realised he was a vote-winner. He duly won the subsequent general election, but proceeded to inflict immense damage on the country and was eventually drummed from office in disgrace.

Four years on, and facing electoral humiliation once more, the Tories are embarking on a second act of grotesque irresponsibility. Although temperatures are breaking records across the world, and apocalyptic “weather events” have become almost commonplace, the party is not only planning to junk a raft of measures to combat the climate crisis but to demonise Labour’s (wavering) support for those measures.

This is unconscionable. It is the ultimate example of shameless, cynical politicians putting their own narrow partisan interests ahead of the common good; of them sacrificing the well-being of their children and grandchildren for their own selfish short-term needs; of an utter abdication of responsibility on the single-most important issue facing mankind.

And this is the party that voted just four years ago for legally binding legislation to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050; the party that won the 2019 general election with a manifesto that promised to implement “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth”.

For once Johnson is not the villain. It is Rishi Sunak, a former chancellor of the Exchequer for whom immediate economic worries far outweigh long-term environmental ones. As a close associate of the Prime Minister told the Times this week: “He’s just not interested [in climate issues]. He’s not opposed to [them] – he’s just not interested.”

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That showed long before last week’s Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election brought the whole question of implementing vital but costly green measures to a head.

Since he became Prime Minister last October, Sunak’s government has approved a new coal mine in Cumbria, given the green light to a vast oil field in the North Sea and resisted any relaxation of planning regulations for onshore wind farms. It looks set to renege on its promise to give developing countries £11.5bn to counter climate change. 

Sunak agreed to attend the Cop27 summit in Egypt last November only after Johnson announced he was going. He failed to attend Emmanuel Macron’s climate and development summit in Paris last month, preferring to attend Rupert Murdoch’s summer party. The five priorities for government that he unveiled last January failed to include any sort of environmental action. Despite soaring energy costs caused by the Ukraine war he has done precious little to promote energy efficiency.

This is not left-wing carping. The government’s own independent advisers, the Climate Change Committee, warned last month that it was missing almost every target for achieving net zero, from home insulation to cutting transport emissions.

At the same time Zac Goldsmith resigned as international environment minister with a withering broadside at the government’s “apathy” in the face of humanity’s greatest challenge. Britain “has visibly stepped off the world stage and withdrawn our leadership on climate and nature”, he said.

More than 100 business leaders have begged Sunak to refocus on achieving Britain’s net zero goal. Leading environmental organisations have challenged the government’s “inadequate” plans for achieving its legally binding net zero goal in court.

[See also: Would Boris Johnson have won in Uxbridge]

Things are about to get a whole lot worse. The Tories won last Thursday’s Uxbridge by-election by weaponising the Ultra Low Emission Zone charge (Ulez) on older, more polluting vehicles that Sadiq Khan, London’s Mayor, is extending to outer London next month. Right-wingers and their echo chambers in the Tory press are leading the charge for a whole slew of other environmental measures to be dumped.

The likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, John Redwood, Steve Baker, Iain Duncan Smith and David Frost – the same cabal that gave us the hardest of hard Brexits – want the government to abandon its proposed ban on new petrol and diesel cars by 2030. They want to axe green levies on energy bills, a looming ban on new gas boilers, a threatened packaging tax on manufacturers and low-traffic neighbourhoods. They want to extend the imminent deadline for landlords to meet energy efficiency targets. They want Natural England, the environmental quango, to scrap plans for strict environmental controls on new developments.

Ministers are responding. Yesterday (24 July) Sunak said plans to achieve net zero should be “proportionate and pragmatic” and hinted that he could ditch or delay those policies that imposed a direct cost on consumers. On Sunday Michael Gove, the Levelling Up and Housing Secretary, warned against treating environmentalism as a “religious crusade” and signalled various concessions. Grant Shapps, the Energy Secretary, said Britain should “max out” its North Sea energy and oil reserves. 

In David Cameron’s memorable words, the Tories are preparing to “cut the green crap” – and they make little effort to hide their partisan motives.

“What works is getting rid of unpopular, expensive green policies,” Rees-Mogg said after the Conservatives retained Johnson’s old seat in Uxbridge. Craig Mackinlay, who leads the Net Zero Scrutiny Group of Tory MPs, said: “There’s a lot to learn from Uxbridge – [that’s] a way to create some significant blue water between us and Labour is to rethink these charges and the net zero pathway.”

The second part of the Tories’ populist, neo-Trumpian electoral strategy is to use the environment as a wedge issue by painting Keir Starmer’s Labour Party as “eco-extremists”.

Thus Sunak has claimed that “eco-zealots at Just Stop Oil are writing Keir Starmer’s energy policy”. Thus Greg Hands, the Conservative Party chair, has demanded Labour return donations from Dale Vince, the renewable energy tycoon, because he has also donated to Just Stop Oil. Thus Shapps said of his wish to “max out” the North Sea’s fossil fuel reserves: “What Labour foolishly and irresponsibly want to do is pursue a policy of self-harm by not taking that [North Sea] oil and gas but buying it from abroad.”

Labour’s response is worrying. Desperate to blunt Tory lines of attack before the election, it has scaled back its £28bn “green prosperity” plan. After Ed Miliband presented his proposals for a green revolution to the shadow cabinet earlier this month, Starmer reportedly exclaimed: “I hate tree huggers.” Following Uxbridge, he has rowed back on Ulez saying: “We’re doing something very wrong if policies put forward by the Labour Party end up on each and every Tory leaflet.”

As a senior Labour MP was quoted in the Observer, “allowing the Tories to edit the next Labour manifesto” is risky on several scores. Yes, Labour should explore ways to ensure the costs of battling climate change are fairly spread, but to backpedal on its environmental pledges would be morally wrong. It would also jeopardise what was, until recently, Britain’s international leadership on climate action, and its ability to benefit economically from efforts to tackle global warming.

Above all, contrary to what right-wing Conservatives believe, it could well prove electorally unpopular. Of course voters are worried about the cost-of-living crisis, but they are also deeply concerned about the world their children and grandchildren will inherit. Starmer should denounce the Tories for their cynicism, not retreat in the face of their attacks. 

Labour lost Uxbridge by a mere 495 votes. Ulez could have been better planned and presented, with more support for the less well-off, but it is right in principle. Had Starmer robustly defended the policy instead of seeking to disown it, his party might well have captured Johnson’s old seat. It’s called leadership.

[See also: Inside the assassination bureau]

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