1 August 2023

The Prime Minister is finding out it’s not easy being green


Rishi Sunak and Kermit the Frog don’t make for the most obvious pair of political bedfellows, but both have found that it’s not easy being green.

Following an unexpected – except by ConservativeHome – victory in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election, the Prime Minister has come under pressure to U-turn on some of the Government’s pre-existing green commitments. These range from the legal commitment to reach Net Zero by 2050 to phasing out petrol and diesel cars by 2030. 

For the latter, more than 40 Tory MPs and peers, including Jacob Rees-Mogg and Iain Duncan Smith, have written to the Prime Minister asking for the ban be delayed to 2035, since it will do ‘grave harm to the economy’. They were aided by the admission of a climate advisor who helped establish that target that it was supposed to be 2032, but was changed because Boris Johnson prefers numbers that end in zero.  

Pushback has come from those who point out that Net Zero and other environmental objectives are more popular in the UK than in any comparable country – among both Conservative and Labour voters. 

But the inconvenient truth for environmental advocates is that the polling has always said that public support drops substantially when the personal cost of policies is spelt out to them. This was the message of Uxbridge. As Robert Colvile has pointed out, substantial majorities of voters are concerned about improving air quality, but they don’t want to be forced to pay for it. 

All of which looks like electoral catnip for Sunak. He has long been a politician – from lockdowns to tax cuts – concerned about policy trade-offs and their spending implications. Unfunded commitments – like the Net Zero pledge – are anathema to him. The hope must be that this is an issue that places him on the side of both voters, and Tory members (never his biggest fans). 

Yet whilst Sunak and his government have been making big noises about ‘standing up for motorists’ and not letting Net Zero become a ‘crusade’, it would be wrong to suggest that we’re seeing a U-turn similar to the planning reform retreat that followed defeat in Chesham and Amersham. Despite the Telegraph-friendly rhetoric, little has changed.

Sunak’s approach to environmental issues appears to follow two tracks: to attempt to impose a clear dividing line with Labour, and to prioritise energy security and affordability over any arbitrary emissions targets. He has already made clear that Net Zero by 2050 and the ban of fossil fuel vehicles sales remain government policy. 

The announcement that the Government would continue awarding more than 100 new licences for North Sea gas and oil exploration was an obvious example of this. Whilst arguing it was compatible with Net Zero, Sunak drew a clear contrast with Labour and the SNP – who oppose further exploration – without having to commit to further extraction. 

Similarly, by placing the emphasis on getting by on one’s own supply over appeasing Just Stop Oil, the Prime Minister is acting entirely in-line with his decision to prioritise Energy Security ahead of Net Zero, which is literally written into the name of the new department he established in February. It’s also much easier politically than the flirtation with fracking that helped bring down his predecessor. 

Energy policy is best thought of as a process of balancing affordability with security and emissions reduction. Post-Ukraine and with prices surging, the immediate emphasis is rightly on the former two over the latter. As ULEZ shows, voters have little interest in expensive sacrifices for future targets whilst they are feeling the squeeze; swing voters don’t want to sump up £10,000 for heat pumps. 

This provides Sunak with plenty of wiggle room when it comes to declaring mission accomplished on those eco-ambitions that aren’t supported by legal commitments. But he can only go so far. Even though there is a more-than-even chance he won’t be in office when many of these targets must be met, ‘getting rid of all the green crap‘ will be a step too far for many Tory MPs. 

With over 150 peers and MPs, the Conservative Environment Network’s parliamentary caucus is far larger than any other assembly of Net Zero-sceptics or motoring enthusiasts. Under Boris Johnson, going green was also an excellent way for backbenchers to climb the greasy pole. Even if he wanted to, Sunak would face substantial opposition to any attempt to unpick his party’s environmental policies. 

So he is left tinkering at the edges. Announcing a review into low-traffic neighbourhoods here, fulminating against Just Stop Oil there: these are desperate attempts to show a little green-bashing leg by a Prime Minister hemmed in by pressures on all sides. Unfortunately for Sunak, any attempt by Number 10 to suggest he will U-turn on Net Zero will leave him looking like a muppet. 

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.