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Good morning. A row has broken out in the Conservative party over Rishi Sunak’s plans — revealed by Henry Zeffman, Chris Mason and Brian Wheeler at the BBC — to water down measures tied to the UK’s net zero targets. Chris Skidmore, the government’s former net zero tsar, and Alok Sharma, who was COP26 president, have both warned that it is an electoral and ecological disaster. They’re probably right in my view but the reasons for Sunak’s retreat from key commitments are not electoral, but ideological. Some thoughts on that below.
Love minus zero
Rishi Sunak’s plans to water down the UK’s green commitments have all the ingredients of a political disaster, I think. The net zero pledge has vocal advocates across the Tory party and, given the government’s otherwise-thin political agenda, blue on blue rows could dominate the party conference season. The car companies are not happy either, with again, the potential for that discontent to run and run. (Ford has become the first to publicly warn the government against relaxing the current target to ban new petrol and diesel car sales by 2030.)
But it’s a mistake, I think, to see the plan as primarily driven by Sunak’s sense of what is electorally expedient. Rather, it’s driven by the fact the prime minister would not have put the net zero target into law, and would prefer it had not been in the manifesto.
To the extent that the Conservative party’s narrow hold in the Uxbridge by-election or events in Europe matter, they do so because they have given Sunak enough of a push to follow his heart on these matters.
The prime minister’s big political challenge is that, although he himself is firmly on the right of the Conservative party, his leadership relies on the support of the party’s left and centre, who are, for the most part, true believers in the net zero target. Even some of his loudest critics on the party’s right are resolute supporters of it: Zac Goldsmith, a close ally of Boris Johnson, has said that Sunak’s watering down of the UK’s net zero targets is a “moment of shame”, while Simon Clarke, a committed Trussite, has also warned Sunak against the move.
By any standard, the politics of moving away from the position that Johnson set out in 2019 are bad, as suggested by survey data collected by the Centre for Towns/British election study and Ipsos.
What I think is true is that, just as with putting more police on the beat, or getting rid of the dangerous concrete in schools, or cutting taxes, there is a big gap between what British voters want and what British voters are willing to pay for.
But the problem with watering down the UK’s green commitments is that you are avoiding the political pain of making voters bear the direct costs of the net zero transition, and exchanging it for the political pain of not doing enough on net zero. Sunak’s approach is a good one if you are the opposition party, as the Conservatives are in London. But it is a bad one if you are the governing party, because no one is going to thank you for preventing them bearing costs, but people are going to blame you for watering down net zero.
If you ask me, the centre ground of British politics hasn’t moved all that much since Johnson’s 2019 election victory, and anything that takes the Conservatives away from the 2019 manifesto comes with a big electoral cost attached. Given that the small boats issue means that the Conservatives will have had to move away from the promises they made on immigration, that the various economic and social crises that have hit the UK since 2019 mean they have been forced away from Johnson’s promises on the public services, the last thing the Tory party needs is to move away from Johnson’s manifesto pledges on climate.
On top of all that, the Labour party is terrified of making spending commitments because they don’t want to give Sunak the space to attack them on tax. A Tory retreat from climate policies without a direct cost to the government, such as delaying the electric vehicle switchover or the end of gas boilers, is a gift to the Labour party (please do vote in our poll below about one of those current ambitions).
The big gap between Sunak’s beliefs, which put him on the right of the Conservative party, and the liberal, relatively moderate positions of the voters who like (or rather, liked) him best are a big part of why his approval ratings have slumped. Sunak started life as prime minister with a lot of goodwill from centrist, pro-Remain voters. His positions since then have eroded that advantage and his standing in the country is now pretty much what we would expect for a generic leader of a party that has been in office for 13 years and is facing a number of local and international crises: ie, it’s bad. Survey below from Ipsos.
But all of that is besides the point: Sunak’s primary motivation in watering down the UK’s net zero targets is not electoral advantage. It’s belief. And maybe he’ll get some kind of political dividend for that — but in my view, it’s not that likely, and instead, he is taking the Conservatives away from where elections are generally won, and towards the wrecking yard.
Now try this
I continue to find the new Star Wars series, Ahsoka, throughly average. Go watch a classic TV series, like the BBC version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, or Six Feet Under, instead.
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