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The traditional example of chaos theory used to be that a butterfly flapping its wings could eventually cause a tornado. In Britain today it might be 495 people in Uxbridge and South Ruislip accidentally sabotaging life on earth.
Before that by-election on 20 July, Net Zero was one of the few genuine consensus topics in British politics. Every mainstream political leader accepted the need to be carbon neutral by 2050, and the means to achieve it. It hadn’t become a significant culture-war issue, as in the United States, or a major dividing line in the Conservative Party. It was one of the few things in politics that united Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn.
No longer. Since the Conservatives clung on in Uxbridge on the back of some voters’ dislike of ULEZ, London’s clean-air car charge, Sunak has decided to throw in his lot behind weakening green policies. At his emergency press conference on Wednesday, the Prime Minister rowed back on a range of policies – most eye-catchingly, the ban on new petrol and diesel cars after 2030, which was postponed by five years, and the phasing-out of gas boilers by 2035.
Some of the policies he scrapped, such as a tax on meat and an obligatory seven recycling bins, had existed predominantly in his imagination.
None of the speech made sense even on its own terms. Sunak criticised previous governments for simply ‘wishing’ Net Zero into existence, then effectively announced that he was going to do exactly the same thing, by keeping the pledge but cutting the key means of achieving it. A range of energy experts argue that the new changes will actually cost people money, by prolonging the use of expensive fossil fuels and hindering a new ‘green economy’ that will create thousands of jobs. And Sunak provided no evidence or data to show the UK would still be able to reach Net Zero by 2050 under the revised strategy.
“I know that [people] dislike Westminster game playing, the short-termism, and the lack of accountability,” declared the Prime Minister. Except this was all three: a speech about future sustainability, delivered in parliamentary recess not to MPs but to journalists, intended solely to improve the polls right now and mitigate Conservative losses in the general election next year. This was not a speech about governing in the interests of the climate or the British people, but of Sunak himself.
For many years now Conservative Prime Ministers have put their careers before the country. Now they’re putting them before the planet.
The irony of it all is that if the Conservatives were going to learn all their lessons from Uxbridge, they learned the wrong one. The seat had been held by the party since 1970, didn’t even fall to Labour under Tony Blair, and in July came within 500 votes of falling to Labour, on a 6.7% swing. The moral was not that voters want fewer green policies but fewer Conservatives.
And yet Downing Street has taken the specificities of Uxbridge – an outer-London seat with a motorist-heavy demographic, protesting against a London car charge that was due to take effect a few weeks later – and attempted to repeat the trick nationwide.
All this reveals important things about Sunak: not simply his opportunism, desperation and cynicism, but his total absence of political antennae. Put simply, this plan will fail. It will not simply hinder the UK’s fight against climate change, and cost rather than save people money, but it won’t even deliver the outcome for which it was designed – saving the Prime Minister’s job.
Of course, Thursday’s right-wing newspapers responded favourably to Sunak’s announcements. Some of them hailed the dishonest plans to abolish measures that were not even in consideration. And yet those headlines will be mostly forgotten in a couple of weeks. Few voters will suddenly change their mind about Sunak, or the economy, or the NHS – and the majority of voters support efforts to combat climate change. In particular, the more ‘liberal’ Conservative voters in the south and west could be even more turned off by the party.
Further to that is a new schism in Sunak’s own party. Net Zero does not even conform to the old left-right or Leave-Remain divisions in the party, thus opening an entirely new front around which backbenchers can despise and battle each other. Jacob Rees-Mogg is now on the opposite side of Boris Johnson, while Zac Goldsmith – until recently a minister – is openly calling for a general election.
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Labour, for its part, has made clear that it will reverse the decision on new petrol and diesel cars, therefore appearing to be the grown-ups in the room, and crucially, offering the stability to business that the Government has taken away. Already the party has put out attack ads depicting Sunak in the pocket of Liz Truss – neatly echoing the infamous posters about Alex Salmond and Ed Miliband that caused Labour so much damage in the 2015 general election campaign.
Labour’s attacks on the Conservative Party are well grounded. The self-proclaimed ‘party of business’ has now infuriated the car and energy sectors who had fixed their strategies and goals on the old deadlines and are now left – much as during the Brexit years – facing profound uncertainty. They will now have little confidence that the Government knows what it is doing or even cares about them. That is not just a worry for multinationals’ bottom lines but for the millions of pounds in investment that may now be diverted.
The climate was the one issue on which Britain could credibly claim a degree of global leadership. It is less than two years since the UK hosted the COP summit and, for all its failings, the Government demonstrated some ambition with its targets. That has now been shattered. Ironically, Sunak and many of his fellow Brexiters have justified the 2030 delay on the basis we will now be aligned with the weaker target of the EU.
Lord Goldsmith is wrong on many issues but he is right on this: Sunak does not care about the environment but about himself. This week’s move was a transparent ploy to sacrifice Britain’s long-term sustainability in favour of short-term party political advantage.
The only consolation is that it may not, in the end, matter. Barring an extraordinary miracle Sunak will be nowhere near power in 2025, let alone 2050. With Labour firmly on course to win the next election by a comfortable margin, business may simply choose to follow the old targets and ignore the Prime Minister altogether.