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‘Sunak’s Climate Betrayal is a Retreat Into the Politics of Unpopulism’

The Prime Minister is abandoning a popular green agenda in order to benefit a shrinking minority of voters, writes Josiah Mortimer

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visits Shell’s St Fergus Gas Plant in Peterhead, Aberdeenshire, in July. Photo: Euan Duff/PA/Alamy

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Imagine, for a moment, that 500 more people in Uxbridge had thrown their weight behind the Labour Party in July’s by-election, which saw the Conservatives scrape a narrow win. 

Would Rishi Sunak still be considering his planned rollback on green policies? Perhaps, but it’s unlikely. Those 500 voters, through no fault of their own, have provided him with cover for slashing a range of his own climate goals. Ironically, the nearly 900 people who voted for the Greens in the seat now face a national backlash.

To paraphrase Churchill, never have so few votes had so much power, and so many votes had so little. Politics is being conducted for a handful of activist swing voters. It is a politics of anti-ULEZ camera vandals, rather than what recent polling commissioned by Byline Times shows is the national pro-environmental majority. 

Sunak’s mooted decision to delay the ban on new petrol and diesel sales will make this country demonstrably more polluted. His move to scrap green targets for landlords, make no mistake, will cost millions of renters hundreds of pounds in extra energy bills a year, through colder, leakier homes. 

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These moves will shape the future of the UK and our global standing on climate change, hinging on the whims of a minuscule voter base. It is the paradox of British democracy – a ‘majoritarian’ voting system resulting in wins for only a vociferous minority. 

The progressive IPPR think tank has put it simply: rolling back on net zero policies will put Rishi Sunak on the wrong side of the public, the economics, and history.

It will be bad for consumers who would benefit from a faster transition to net zero. Significantly weakening the plan to phase out the installation of gas boilers by 2035 – with ministers apparently saying that they only want 80% to be phased out by then – will make us all more reliant on volatile, expensive and imported fossil fuels. 

The last Conservative PM to move to ‘cut the green crap’ – David Cameron – cost UK households £2.5bn in higher energy bills, by effectively banning onshore wind power, and slashing green subsidies.

Sunak’s own anti-green push will be similarly bad for our economy. The race to net zero is the economic opportunity of the 21st century – giving businesses and investors stability and certainty after years of policy chaos. 

“While other countries race ahead, the UK is going into reverse gear. What is the point of investing half a billion pounds of public money in an electric battery factory only to abandon the petrol and diesel phase out?” says the IPPR’s Luke Murphy. 

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Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson privately backed the same road-pricing schemes the Conservatives are now attacking the London mayor over.

Ditching or delaying the key measures to get the UK to net zero by 2050 will have the same effect as scrapping the target altogether. It will be impossible to reach. 

But perhaps most perplexingly, these changes could be disastrous for the Conservatives’ electoral prospects. The public overwhelmingly supports climate action regardless of age, geography, background or voting intention. They want more ambition on climate not less, as the IPPR puts it.

There will be a backlash, including among the last remaining “wets” of the parliamentary Conservative party. MP Chris Skidmore is hinting at a letter of no confidence in the Prime Minister over the move. Twenty points behind in the polls, the party is fundamentally disconnected from voters now, misreading the mood of GB News for the mood of the nation. 

Companies are baffled. Ford UK, a major player in the British car sector, didn’t hold back. In a statement today, they underscored the gravity of the 2030 diesel/petrol target, calling it a “vital catalyst for a clean energy future”. Only fossil fuel giants will be celebrating. 

At the UN Climate Ambition Summit in New York, a lone voice from the UK will echo in the chambers. Not a climate leader from Downing Street, but City Hall. London mayor Sadiq Khan is the only UK leader to have received an invitation to speak, it seems. Or at least, the only one to take up the offer.

Where is the country’s Prime Minister during the UN Climate Ambition summit? Plotting to make Britain poorer, colder, more polluted and less adaptable to the climate crisis. Opposition is met not through dialogue and compromise but attempts to outlaw it – from the anti-protest Public Order Act to targeting peaceful campaigners.

It is as embarrassing as it is shameful. Businesses face more uncertainty, voters face higher bills, and the world keeps burning.

We are a nation adrift, as Sunak tries to steer the ship for a handful of vested interests and blinkered climate deniers. For all that Conservative motormouths rant about ‘Eco Zealots’, we are seeing the real zealots at work. 

Perhaps industry will take little notice of the latest bonfire of climate goals, planning for an outcome that seems far more certain than any government policy right now: a routing for Sunak’s lost party next year. 

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