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20 September 2023

Sunak risks splitting Tories over net zero pushback

The Prime Minister is turning climate change into a political tool.

By Freddie Hayward

The government’s attempt to reset the political narrative has begun. Its weapon of choice? The net zero agenda. The papers and the BBC this morning (20 September) are reporting that Sunak is on the verge of diluting a series of measures designed to combat global warming. The top lines are that plans to ban new gas and oil boilers, as well as new diesel and petrol cars, will be diluted and pushed back five years.

Yet again, Sunak will have to face down a party divided over one of the most important policy issues of the decade. Opposition to the net zero agenda has been brewing for a while, with sceptical Tory MPs coalescing together in groups such as the Net Zero Scrutiny Group. But there’s also a sizeable contingent that will resist any attempt to slim down the measures. The Tory MP Chris Skidmore has said this is “potentially the greatest mistake of [Sunak’s] premiership so far”. Simon Clarke, a leading free marketeer in the party, said he was “clear that [net zero] is in our environmental, economic, moral and (yes) political interests as Conservatives”.

[See also: The fall of brand Sunak]

Alongside the opposition within his party, Sunak will also face criticism from business. The changes would pile uncertainty on those planning investments based on these targets. This morning, Ford hit out at the government for changing direction. After Brexit and years of political chaos, businesses just want stability.

Politically, this is designed to create problems for Labour. The big question is how the party responds. The wounds from the Uxbridge by-election loss – which was blamed on Sadiq Khan’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) scheme – are still raw. Labour’s strategy in recent months has been to frame the green agenda in terms of jobs and economic growth, while closing down discussion of green taxes such as Ulez (even if Ulez is less about global warming and more about air pollution). This is how Labour has squared the cost-of-living crisis with its ambitious plan to decarbonise the electricity system by 2030. It will now have to decide whether to support the changes or resist the government, and explain how it will deliver the more demanding targets.

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In recent years, global warming has been largely absent from politics. Instead, Brexit and the pandemic have dominated and there has been broad consensus between the two main parties. That looks like it will change.

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

[See also: Unite chief: “I have seen zilch on Labour’s green prosperity plan”]

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