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20 September 2023

Rishi Sunak’s net zero U-turn is riskier than it looks

The backlash from businesses, Tory MPs and voters may outweigh any political gains.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Rishi Sunak has announced he is watering down key measures to help Britain meet its legally binding target of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Delivering a hastily arranged speech in the press room at Downing Street after the plans were leaked to the BBC last night (19 September), the Prime Minister attempted to reassert his authority. The slogan on the podium read “Long-term decisions for a brighter future” as Sunak confirmed U-turns on a series of policies. 

The ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars will be delayed from 2030 to 2035. So will the ban on new gas boilers, from which some households will be entirely exempt. A number of measures which were not government policy but had (Sunak said) been suggested were also pre-emptively rejected: extra taxes to discourage air travel, a ban on new oil and gas drilling in the North Sea, and – somewhat bizarrely – rules on compulsory car-pooling and making households have seven bins. 

“I am confident we can adopt a more pragmatic and realistic approach to net zero which eases the burden on British people,” Sunak stressed.

The aim of this press conference was to take back control of the narrative. As usual, Sunak appeared slick and serious, speaking earnestly about the need for a “properly held national debate” and the risk of “losing the consent of the British people”. He attempted to position himself as a moderate between two extremes – opponents of net zero and climate “zealots” – and had a series of facts and figures to support his assertion that the policies he was unwinding were not needed.

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Sunak will hope that, by speaking frankly about “sensible green leadership” and being “honest when the facts change”, he can convince voters that he is working to save hard-pressed families cash. He praised the “ambition” of the 2050 net zero target, while reversing some of the measures in place to achieve it. It’s a delicate balancing act – and it comes with three significant risks to Sunak and his party.

Risk one comes from the business community. The furious on-record statements issued by leaders speak for themselves.

“There is no ‘green vs cheap’ debate, it’s a false argument that only serves to delay the vital work of transforming our economy,” fumed Chris Norbury, CEO of Eon, which provides electricity to five million customers. “This is a misstep on so many levels. From a business perspective, companies wanting to invest in the UK need long-term certainty to create the jobs and prosperity this country needs.”

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

Lisa Brankin, the chair of Ford, went even further: “Our business needs three things from the UK government: ambition, commitment and consistency. A relaxation of 2030 would undermine all three.”

It’s been five years since Boris Johnson, then foreign secretary, is reported to have declared “f*** business” when questioned about concerns from companies over a no-deal Brexit. Sunak, after the chaos of the Johnson era and the brief Trussonomics experiment, has tried to dispel that attitude. While Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves have been trying to reinvent Labour as the “party of business”, with their “smoked-salmon offensive” in the City, the Conservatives have been fighting back. This is a grown-up prime minister, the message goes, who understands business: a former banker with an eye on Silicon Valley who can be trusted to listen to warnings about jobs and the economy rather than getting embroiled in another Tory psychodrama.

But businesses do not react well if the government suddenly pulls the rug out from under them, especially if they are being asked to make big investments in the UK economy – investments such as ploughing billions of pounds into green infrastructure. Sunak’s supporters can try to minimise these concerns. Kemi Badenoch, the Business and Trade Secretary, told a WhatsApp group of Tory MPs: “If there’s one thing I learned as Biz Sec, it’s that the auto industry says lots of things in public and different things in private. They certainly do not always speak with one voice… and understandably are all seeking market share against their competitors.” But for a PM who has relied so hard on the idea that he “is trusted by business”, the ferocious backlash from industry has a political cost.

The second risk to Sunak comes from within his own party. Badenoch’s WhatsApp message was in reply to Simon Clarke, a Red Wall MP and former levelling up secretary under Truss, who posted a scathing thread on Twitter when the plans were first leaked. “We should be exceptionally careful of seeking to extract political advantage on this issue when the efforts of successive prime ministers – the majority of them Conservative – have been dedicated to upholding what Margaret Thatcher called a ‘full repairing lease’ on our planet’,” he warned.

Clarke’s despair has been echoed by high-profile Tories from other wings of the party. “For any party to resile from this agenda will not help economically or electorally,” lamented Alok Sharma, the former business secretary and president of the Cop26 climate conference. “There is only a cost, not a benefit, to delay,” agreed Chris Skidmore, the minister who signed the net zero pledge into law. Both are, somewhat awkwardly, currently in New York for the UN’s climate week.

But the punchiest comment surely came from Zac Goldsmith, who resigned from Sunak’s government in June over what he called government “apathy” towards climate change. Goldsmith called the U-turn “a moment of shame”, and stressed that the Tories’ election-winning 2019 manifesto “could not have been clearer about our commitment to tackle climate change”.

[See also: How popular is Rishi Sunak?]

Goldsmith is a peer, not an MP, so is perhaps freer to speak his mind than some of his colleagues in the Commons. But there are already whispers of no-confidence letters being submitted by MPs (Skidmore refused to rule out sending one), and questions are resurfacing about Sunak’s mandate. While an outright leadership challenge over this issue is unlikely, the fragile consensus Sunak has managed to maintain in his divided party looks at risk of shattering. He has never been well-loved by the party, having been appointed as leader a year ago, without a members’ vote, on the grounds that he could hold the party together. If he now seems to be failing at this, his already weakened authority will only further diminish. 

The final risk to Sunak was also articulated by Goldsmith: “It says much about his low opinion of voters that he believes they will join him on the side of environmental destruction.”

Are there votes in delaying green initiatives? It’s hard to say: a clear majority of voters back net zero and believe the government isn’t doing enough, but support falls when individual policies that might hit their bank balance are considered.

Sunak has clearly made the calculation, based on the Tories’ surprise win in the Uxbridge by-election, where London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone was a key issue, that the latter could cancel out the former. But it is a significant gamble, especially since net zero was such a significant Conservative policy – one of the few legacies of Boris Johnson’s administration. As Rachel Wolf, who co-wrote the 2019 Conservative manifesto, put it: “Lots of the public will assume the reason the target has been watered down is because the government is too incompetent to meet it.”

And there’s more than one way to be incompetent. Sunak only gave his speech today because of the leak last night, and it has utterly disrupted the government’s media strategy. Today should have been a day to talk about falling inflation figures (something for which Sunak is desperately trying to claim credit), yet the net zero row has sucked up all the political oxygen. The government’s attempted message – that this is about saving voters money – has been lost in the outraged reactions and the general sense of chaos.

Of course, not everyone is angry. Conservatives MPs sceptical of the net zero target are jubilant (as is Liz Truss, who pushed for exactly this U-turn in a speech on Monday). Some Tory strategists believe that turning climate change into another culture war could help thwart a Labour victory next year (a danger Keir Starmer’s team is alert to). And the split in the party over net zero has been widening for some time – Sunak couldn’t dodge it forever and it may make more sense to address it now than closer to the election.

Yet while the PM has tried to sell this U-turn as “pragmatic” and “proportionate”, the downsides of weakening Britain’s climate agenda are clearer than the potential gains. Today could prove the miscalculation that defines Sunak’s legacy.

[See also: Sunak risks splitting Tories over net zero pushback]

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