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23 September 2023

Right-wing papers are preparing the Tories’ downfall over net zero

As with their coverage of Liz Truss’s leadership, the Sun, Mail and Telegraph are out of touch with public opinion.

By Jonn Elledge

It’s just coming up to a quarter to doomsday so let’s take a look at the papers. Wednesday’s Mail has gone with “Finally! Common sense on net zero” (two of the paper’s favourite idioms in one headline, there), and also asks: “Is this the moment Rishi turned tide?” Thursday’s Sun has modestly claimed that it was the Sun wot won it, greeting the Prime Minister’s speech as a victory for its previously unnoticed “Give us a brake” campaign: “Given us a brake”, that’s the headline. Meanwhile the Telegraph has given the ever rational Allister Heath, editor of its Sunday sister title, space for a column warning that, “The furious Blob will try to destroy Rishi Sunak for his net zero heresy”. (Columnist expert here – this isn’t cute, columnists actually only do this when they’re extremely distressed.)

All in all, if you restrict your reading to the papers that can still be relied on to back the Tories, which is exactly what a significant chunk of the right-wing pro-Brexit bubble do, you’d come away with the impression that Rishi Sunak’s decision to row back a bunch of environmental targets laid out in the 2019 Conservative manifesto was a universally popular and generally clever thing to do. Finally, after a difficult year in which people kept banging on about irrelevant nonsense like the fact their kids’ schools were literally collapsing, everything’s coming up Rishi.

There are, though, a few niggling reasons to doubt this version of events. One is that, this time last year, these exact same papers – in many cases these exact same writers – were using the same triumphal tone in their coverage of the Liz Truss premiership and Kwasi Kwarteng’s mini-Budget. They have not, that I have noticed, accounted for any of this. 

Then there’s the fact polls show that, far from being some niche Westminster bubble issue of little interest to real voters, the environment has soared up the priority lists. YouGov’s tracker poll now generally shows it to be thought the fourth most pressing issue facing the country, roughly on a par with immigration; less than a decade ago, it barely ranked. It is not immediately obvious to me how promising to do as little as possible on something as important to the electorate as that is meant to “turn the tide” on the Tories’ 20 point polling deficit. But to be fair, I am not blessed with Paul Dacre’s hotline to the national soul.

[See also: Keir Starmer lands with a bump]

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And then there’s the minor issue that the near universal response to the policy was awful. Environmental scientists hated it, obviously (sample quote, from Professor Dave Reay of the Edinburgh Climate Change Institute: “It’s not pragmatic, it’s pathetic”). Worse, if you’re a Tory prime minister, were the comments from industry (Lisa Brankin, UK chair of Ford: “Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment, and consistency… [This] would undermine all three”). Or those of former Tory ministers (Simon Clarke: “It is unclear how [businesses] are to plan… if we respond to one by-election in west London by tearing up key planks of government policy”). Even Al Gore weighed in, with the passion that did so much to secure his victory in the 2000 US presidential election, describing the decision as “unfortunate”. 

Worst of all, worse even than the rage and disappointment and criticism, was the sense on social media of a country simply laughing. The economy has barely grown in a decade, everyone is broke and the country’s public buildings are literally falling down. And the Prime Minister’s big intervention is to invent a bunch of imaginary policies involving meat taxes, compulsory car sharing or a frankly implausible profusion of bins, and then reassure us that he now opposes the lot of them.

Sunak seems to be the only person in Britain who doesn’t understand that his party is on course for a generational, possibly even existential, defeat. And one reason must be that the Telegraph, Mail and Sun are still cheering him on. 

Once upon a time the papers were not representative, exactly, but at least universal. The demands of both owners and advertisers may have meant that their politics skewed to the right, but the scale of their readership kept the industry at least slightly grounded in electoral reality. Read all the right-leaning papers, and you’d get a sense of what the bit of the country that might deign to vote Tory was thinking, which was of course why the Sun backed Tony Blair in 1997.

Now, though, readerships are shrinking, and those that remain skew older and can’t be said to represent anything very much. A policy might genuinely appeal to the sorts of people who read the Mail and Telegraph and Sun, and still not be remotely popular even among Tory voters because their readerships just aren’t big enough. The papers are calibrating their coverage to match the views and interests of a tiny and increasingly elderly minority. Yet through their influence on broadcasters and thus on politics, they continue to set the agenda.

And so Rishi Sunak finds himself in a situation where the whole world is pointing and laughing – and he cannot even hear it.

[See also: “Cutting the green crap” is a losing strategy for Rishi Sunak]

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