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On net zero, the Conservatives are increasingly estranged from business

At the Tories’ annual party conference, industry seemed more supportive of the green transition than senior politicians.

By Zoë Grünewald

Two weeks ago Rishi Sunak announced a weakening of key long-standing net zero policies, including pushing back the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars.

The Prime Minister told the public he was prepared to right wrongs made by politicians “motivated by short-term thinking… telling people the bits they want to hear, and not necessarily always the bits they need to hear”. This was a distinct change in tone, to say the least, given that these kinds of climate commitments had formerly enjoyed cross-party support.

Sunak set out how the government wouldn’t force the public to take on certain behavioural changes, ruling out (non-existent) meat taxes, saying no to enforced carpooling (currently in place, er, nowhere), and clamping down on cumbersome recycling systems (OK, this does hold some water). For some, this was a welcome shift away from nanny-statism, but to others it looked like an embarrassing retreat. Industries that had been planning investments around previous net-zero targets were apoplectic. Jürgen Maier, former chief executive of Siemens, said: “It beggars belief… I’m honestly angry. Everybody is now sitting and wobbling and wondering. And I tell you what, they won’t be investing in the UK.”

Only a week later, at the Conservative Party conference, you’d be forgiven for wondering if Sunak represented a different party altogether. Walking into the exhibition hall, what was immediately obvious was how many energy and environmental exhibitors were there, proudly touting their role in the green transition. Flicking through the lengthy conference agenda, almost every page contained details of a fringe event sympathetic to net zero.

The move to a green economy is big business. Glossy pamphlets and showreels from the private sector showcased long-term climate investment strategies, begging the government for leadership and durable partnerships with predictable incentives. Companies see the boom in renewable energy, electric vehicles, battery technology, research and development, and chip-making sparked in the US by the Inflation Reduction Act and swoon. British industry wants in on the action.

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Still, throughout the conference, doubts about the transition came thick and fast from high-profile Conservatives. In her maiden conference speech Claire Coutinho, the Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary, leaned into the anti-nanny state rhetoric, attacking “net-zero zealots” and accusing Labour of wanting to implement meat taxes. Her statements attacking the “war on motorists” and the “elite” imposition of net-zero targets won loud applause from the conference floor.

At the Spectator’s net-zero fringe event Jacob Rees-Mogg, a former energy secretary, pushed for technology first and regulation second, expressing indignation at the idea of the government intervening in individuals’ lives. “Nanny is marvellous,” he told a gin-and-tonic-sipping audience, “but she’s there to look after my six children, not tell the British public what to do.” Cue guffaws.

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But there were some significant interventions from key party members in favour of the green transition. At Theresa May’s Conservative Environment Network (CEN) reception there was a long queue out of the door. “To be a conservative is to conserve,” the former prime minister told the crowd. “Net zero isn’t a cost to be minimised, it shouldn’t be seen as that. It is the growth opportunity of the century.” Chris Skidmore, a former energy minister and chairman of the government’s net-zero review, also came out fighting, emphasising the impact that diluting policies could have on business. He told a fringe event: “It’s undeniable that investors who are making decisions at this moment… are all looking for that long-term certainty.”

There’s real disconnect between the approach from industry and the populist lurch of some Conservative politicians. A representative of the innovation agency, Nesta, gently chastised the MP Katherine Fletcher in a CEN panel, telling her it was not helpful for the government to “list policies that, as far as I’m aware, were not on the table” (see: meat taxes). The chief strategy and regulation officer of Cadent Gas proudly set out the company’s role in the move to net zero, ignoring the incredulous look on Rees-Mogg’s face. Industry leaders speaking to the Green Transition rolled their eyes at the government’s rhetoric and assured me that important targets are still being adhered to.

“It’s mostly just chatter, but it is frustrating when we’ve all been working so hard for so long,” one told me over a warm glass of red wine. “It’s good to be here though.” I’m not sure who they were trying to convince: me, or themselves.

This article first appeared on the Green Transition weekly email. Subscribe for free weekly analysis on net-zeronomics

[See also: Desperation is turning the centre right against green politics]