As a leading green campaigner recently put it, the world faces an “insidious danger… It is the prospect of irretrievable damage to the atmosphere, to the oceans, to Earth itself… What we are now doing to the world, by degrading the land surfaces, by polluting the waters and by adding greenhouse gases to the air at an unprecedented rate – all this is new in the experience of the Earth. It is mankind and his activities that are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways.”
By “recently”, I mean 1989, and by “leading green campaigner”, I of course mean Margaret Thatcher, who was one of the first global leaders to warn of the risks of climate change.
Over three decades later, it’s not a sentiment her current successor seems particularly interested in, even as the consequences of the “irretrievable damage” Thatcher warned of are becoming impossible to ignore. Parts of southern Europe are quite literally on fire this summer, with tens of thousands of British tourists needing to be evacuated from Greek islands. Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak has announced more than 100 new North Sea oil and gas licences and defended flying to Scotland by private jet.
Sunak did pause to invoke the Iron Lady herself by posing in what he thought was her old car (it wasn’t) and tweeting about “how important cars are for families to live their lives”, but that’s as far as Thatcher’s prescient insights on climate change seem to have been absorbed by the current prime minister.
To be charitable to Sunak for a moment, he has a near-impossible task. He assumed office in the face of epic economic headwinds – surging inflation and interest rates – with no straightforward way to ease the pain for millions of British people. Meeting the net zero commitments signed into British law in 2019 costs money – in terms of both investment in new green infrastructure and regulations to stop the most damaging and polluting practices – and neither households nor the government have much spare cash. At the same time, Sunak’s party is deeply unpopular: the Conservatives are trailing Labour by a 20-point margin, as well as on every policy issue, and it’s difficult to see any scenario short of a foreign country invading that will transform the situation.
Then the Tories pulled off a surprise victory in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election – a result that the desperate Sunak treated as a glimmer of hope. In a seat where a Labour mayor was about to impose a new local policy that had been terribly communicated and would disproportionately affect one group of voters, the Conservatives were able to shift the focus away from the issues driving their national unpopularity and scrape a win. The by-election still recorded a 7.4-point swing away from the Tories (if replicated on a national scale, that would cost them over 80 seats), but the row over the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) was enough to save Sunak from being the first prime minister to lose three by-elections in a day since Harold Wilson and distract from the two catastrophic defeats the Conservatives suffered in Selby and Ainsty and in Somerton and Frome.
[See also: Will carbon capture help us reach net zero?]
The lesson the Tory party seems to have drawn from this is that going to war against green policies is a vote winner. It’s not just the expansion of ultra low emissions zones intended to reduce pollution that are in the crosshairs, but low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs, an unexpected culture war issue), lower speed limits, plans to phase out new gas boilers and petrol and diesel cars, fuel duty rises, and essentially anything that suggests the government is putting protecting the environment ahead of strained household budgets. That’s why Sunak was in Scotland this week promising more fossil fuel drilling and championing air travel.
The trouble is that even discounting the moral calamity of scrapping policies designed to keep the air breathable, the water drinkable, and ensuring the next generation have a functioning planet to live on, the numbers just don’t add up for the Tories.
Ulez might have cost Labour votes in Uxbridge but it is popular across the whole of the region it will cover: recent polling by Redfield & Wilton shows 58 per cent of Londoners support it, and even the controversial expansion to Greater London is backed by 47 per cent to 32 per cent. Other “war on the motorist” measures such as LTNs and better provisions for pedestrians and cyclists poll similarly favourably.
More generally, there is an overwhelming consensus for net zero: in a poll ahead of the local elections earlier this year, 76 per cent of voters supported it. Crucially, that includes many of the people the Tories need to win over: swing voters, Red Wall voters and those who voted Conservative in 2019 are all very much in favour. You won’t hear Sunak mention it but the UK is actually a front-runner in this regard. Conservative voters in Britain are more eco-conscious than those on the centre left in other countries.
Far from attracting cash-strapped Brits nervous about the impact of climate policies, the Tories’ anti-green pivot risks alienating their own voters. We shouldn’t forget that in Somerton, where the eco-conscious Liberal Democrats overturned a Tory majority of 19,213, the Greens also saw a significant resurgence, or that recent polling among millennials – a demographic the Tories have belatedly realised they need to appeal to – reveals they have even higher levels of climate anxiety than other age groups.
There are practical challenges to consider around the green transition, and both Labour and the Tories should be thinking harder about how to mitigate them and prevent Uxbridge-style revolts. But Sunak’s bid to turn the future of our planet into a wedge issue isn’t just reckless and short-sighted, it’s electorally counterproductive. There might not be enough votes in tackling climate change to reverse the Tories’ fortunes, but it would at least stop the dial moving in the wrong direction – and heeding Margaret Thatcher’s warning would be a far better way to honour her legacy than sitting in her car.
[See also: Does Rishi Sunak have any shame?]