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21 September 2023

Rishi Sunak has left Boris Johnson behind

The Prime Minister’s move away from net zero is an attempt to seize the political narrative.

By Freddie Hayward

The Prime Minister moved his speech about diluting net zero measures forward to yesterday afternoon (20 September). Was this the start of the Conservative fightback?

Have your steak and eat it

It was the first time Sunak has spoken about what he will do beyond his five priorities (if we discount the never-heard-of-again maths until 18 speech and the chessboards in parks policy). It was a big moment, a step-change with what came before and a decision that could alter the direction of the country beyond simply clearing up his predecessors’ mess.

Sunak’s speech confirmed that the ban on new petrol and diesel car sales has been delayed from 2030 to 2035 (this is arguably the most significant measure because cars are the UK’s single biggest source of carbon emissions). The transition from gas boilers to heat pumps has been diluted, and tougher energy efficiency rules for landlords have been abandoned.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Rishi Sunak has backtracked on his climate change policies. One of his first decisions as Prime Minister was not to attend Cop27 in Egypt. When he was chancellor, he was sceptical about the cost of delivering Boris Johnson’s net zero agenda. Even this week, he chose to avoid the UN General Assembly, where climate change dominated, sending his deputy PM, Oliver Dowden, instead.

[See also: The fall of brand Sunak]

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But Sunak’s earnest pitch to the public was undermined by two things. First, some of the policies he promised to scrap were merely proposals – there was little sign they would become law. Claims that he was scrapping plans to tax meat, or implement compulsory car-sharing made the speech seem, in the words of Rob Hutton, like a “bonfire of the straw men”. Maybe that’s a bit harsh: as Tom Harwood points out, capturing the cost of externalities has always been at the centre of the conversation about combating climate change. We have a sugar tax; a meat tax is not unimaginable. But that doesn’t mean there was a plan to introduce one anytime soon.

Second, the speech was also clearly intended to force Labour to defend its climate policies in a cost-of-living crisis. While Labour has committed to reinstating the 2030 ban on the sale of new diesel and petrol cars, the party, wisely, seems to be resisting the urge to get into a fight with the government over the specifics of non-existent policies.

A final thought: one of the most interesting things the Prime Minister announced was that the government will soon deliver a plan to boost the national grid capacity. Labour has placed this at the centre of its attempt to decarbonise the energy system by 2030, and it is something industry is pining for. At least they all agree on one thing.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe to it on Substack here.

[See also: In power, Labour will have to act like a wartime cabinet]

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