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1 August 2023

Does Rishi Sunak have any shame?

The Prime Minister is trashing his own legacy by turning against the green agenda.

By Martin Fletcher

When I started writing this column (or what my wife calls my “rant”) three years ago it was fuelled by my outrage at the antics of Boris Johnson, who was surely the most dishonest, divisive and destructive prime minister of modern times. I believed my outrage would dissipate after Johnson was finally removed from office in disgrace, but no: the Tories then contrived to replace him with Liz Truss, an ideological zealot who proved equally destructive, if less venal.

Forty-five days later she was gone and Rishi Sunak succeeded her. He seemed relatively decent and competent. He restored moderates to the cabinet. He removed some, if not all, of the hard right. In a clear rebuke to his predecessors, he promised a government of “integrity, professionalism and accountability”. 

I thought my outrage would subside at last. I thought I could lay down my metaphorical pen, watch the cricket and enjoy time with my grandchildren. Alas, I was wrong again. 

Lacking any record of achievement, devoid of fresh ideas, with the economy stagnant and a cost-of-living crisis raging, Sunak has adopted a shameful two-pronged strategy for avoiding a landslide defeat at next year’s general election. One prong is to go low, dirty and personal, and to hell with the truth. The other – as David Canzini, briefly a Johnson adviser, is said to have told ministerial aides last year – is to “find the wedge issues in your department and hammer them”.

Thus, in recent days, Sunak has claimed without a shred of evidence that “eco-zealots at Just Stop Oil are writing Keir Starmer’s energy policy”. Thus, having dismally failed to resolve the small boats issue, he tweets: “This is what we’re up against. The Labour Party, a subset of lawyers, criminal gangs – they’re all on the same side, propping up a system of exploitation that profits from getting people to the UK illegally.”

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And thus, at the weekend, the Prime Minister told the Sunday Telegraph: “I have a set of principles and values that are important to me, and that anchor my approach to life and to government. I don’t see that across the dispatch box. Every week you just get a different position and he [Starmer] is quite happy to jump on whatever bandwagon is coming along.”

Principles and values? This is the former chancellor who, before his belated resignation, served for two-and-a-half years at the top of Johnson’s government with scarcely a peep of protest at its relentless debauchery; who, desperate for Suella Braverman’s support, restored her to the cabinet six days after she was sacked as home secretary for leaking government documents; and who conspicuously failed to back the privileges committee’s damning report on Johnson’s serial lies to parliament over partygate.

[See also: Abandoning net zero would be a historic mistake]

That was just for starters. After the Tories narrowly avoided defeat in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election by cynically opposing the Ultra Low Emission Scheme (Ulez) that charges the drivers of polluting vehicles, the Prime Minister is now throwing out great chunks of Britain’s bipartisan strategy for achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

He intends to issue at least a hundred new oil and gas licences for the North Sea, creating a clear dividing line with Labour which would ban further drilling in favour of renewable energy. He has become the motorist’s new best friend, promising to review the low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) and 20mph zones that councils have introduced in Britain’s cities (so much for devolving powers from Westminster). He wants motorists to know that “I’m on their side” and sneers at “anti-motorist Labour”.

He further asserts that “we’re not going to get to net zero by telling everybody that they can’t fly everywhere or can’t do this or can’t do that”. He promises to achieve net zero “without adding costs and burdens to families”, casting doubt on plans to ban gas boilers in new homes or new petrol and diesel cars from 2030.

This is Johnsonian “cakeism” at its very worst. Yes, new technologies such as carbon capture can help to reduce emissions, and yes the costs of meeting net zero should be fairly distributed to protect the less well off. But to suggest that we can meet net zero without making any sacrifices, without changing our energy-wasting lifestyles in any way, is profoundly dishonest.

Far from encouraging the use of fossil fuels and cars, the government should be doing its utmost to promote nuclear, solar and wind power, energy efficiency and the demise of the combustion engine. Scarcely a month ago its own independent climate advisers, the Climate Change Committee, warned that Britain was making “worryingly slow” progress on cutting carbon emissions due to ministerial “inertia”.

Principles and values? The reason for Sunak’s sudden epiphany on the road from Uxbridge is as cynical as it is obvious. He wants to use green policies, and the costs and restrictions that they inevitably entail, as a wedge issue against Starmer and Labour. He is putting narrow, short-term partisan advantage before the well-being of future generations. But whether this deeply irresponsible strategy will save him is another matter.

Voters may not like Ulez and other such charges, but they are daily assailed by incontrovertible evidence of the catastrophic consequences of global warming – wildfires, droughts, record heatwaves. They recognise that the climate emergency poses an existential threat to mankind. Indeed, polls show support for the net-zero target to be broader and deeper in the UK than in any other developed country.

Voters are also weary of the Conservatives after 13 years of egregious misgovernment that has wrecked the economy. They have learned from painful experience to distrust their empty rhetoric and hollow promises. I suspect, or hope, that they will see Sunak’s ad hominem attacks and tawdry politics for what they are: a last-ditch bid for votes by a prime minister who has nothing positive left to offer and whose only hope of clinging to office is to make his opponent look even less appealing than himself.

It is a desperate ploy, and Sunak risks destroying one of his few positive attributes: the lingering perception that he is relatively honest, decent and moderate. Far from winning the next election, he may succeed only in trashing his own legacy. He could well be remembered not as the centrist who began to nudge the Conservative Party back towards the political mainstream, but as the right-wing populist who put it on the wrong side of the gravest issue of our times.

[See also: When should Rishi Sunak call a general election?]

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