Net zero is a project which is about the next 30 years. If the polls are to be believed, Rishi Sunak won’t last another 30 months as prime minister. That is the context in which his speech today (20 September) has to be seen.
A prime minister whose premiership was predicated on political recovery seems close to lifeless. The Conservatives are polling close to the nadir reached under Liz Truss (one Deltapoll survey puts them 24 points behind Labour). Sunak’s personal ratings are at their lowest ever.
Time is running out. In a political environment as poor as this, the thinking goes that Sunak must do something different to shift his fortunes. One of the few glimmers of hope was the Tories’ victory in the Uxbridge by-election, propelled by voters’ fury over the expansion of the Ultra Low Emission Zone to outer London.
Decarbonisation is the most ambitious enterprise in global political and economic history. Net zero is the transition to an entirely different method of powering human civilisation, away from the one which has delivered nearly all of modern prosperity. The only reason it is being attempted in just a few decades is that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that the alternative would be far worse. It was inevitable that net zero would be politically contested. But few might have thought that it would be Sunak, a man hailed as a political “grown-up” and a Cameron-esque liberal, who would change course.
[See also: Liz Truss’s return is a gift to Labour]
Anyone surprised hasn’t been listening. Today was confirmation, if any more were needed, that the Conservative right have their man, that Sunak is willing to give them all they ask for, with little resistance. Labour mocked Sunak for following Truss’s demands in her ill-advised speech on Monday. But Truss isn’t the pivotal player – it’s Nigel Farage and the wider right-wing media ecosystem that is developing in Britain without much notice or regard. Much of what Farage has demanded, Suank has got. An unrelenting focus on “stopping the boats”; a government-wide obsession with “debanking” after the NatWest/Coutts affair, and now net zero. More moderate Tory MPs must brace themselves for Farage to turn his attention to UK withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights – and for Sunak to be dragged along.
Something that has been missed today is that Sunak’s intervention is likely to end up in court. A case would argue that the government’s actions are not compatible with the UK’s 2050 net zero target, a target enshrined in law by Theresa May’s government. Though Sunak is nominally still committed to the target, the truth about today is that the government is left willing the end but not the means. Investment will almost certainly be hit, as Ford and other major corporations have warned.
Britain has enjoyed a broad consensus on climate change, even running through the Conservative governments of the last decade, a rare thread of consistency across an ideologically unmoored set of administrations. Many of these measures could be reversed by an incoming Labour government but the past consensus is unlikely to be restored – it ended today. The Conservatives are probably heading to opposition, free of any responsibilities that remain. This is a fissure within our politics that is only likely to get wider.