Picture by Stuart Graham / Conservative Party Flickr

Rishi Sunak’s tilt at a ‘net zero culture war’ is a sign of things to come

After the dust settled on Friday morning, with the electoral spoils split equally between the three main parties, the hunt was on for by-election night’s biggest loser. Today, with the initial period of Uxbridge-induced shock over, and the stage of reflection and learning quickly transposing into one of action, it now seems clear. After all, it is the so-called “Green Tory” — the already-endangered environmentally-conscious Conservative — who looks set to suffer most. 

It comes after the Conservative party narrowly won the seat of Uxbridge and South Ruislip by 495 votes, following a campaign that capitalised on opposition to plans by London’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan to extend the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ). Victorious candidate Steve Tuckwell told cheering Conservative activists Friday morning that the backlash to ULEZ had “lost Labour this election”.

With stunning synchronisation, net zero-sceptic Conservative MPs have since seized on the Uxbridge result to argue that the race proffers an opportunity for Sunak to reframe his electoral offering. 

The most senior of those siren voices thus far is levelling up secretary Michael Gove. Decrying “climate crusaders”, the veteran cabinet minister — who held the post of environment secretary when the government enshrined its net zero by 2050 target into law — told the Sunday Telegraph he wants to relax current plans to bring in stricter minimum energy efficiency standards for landlords by 2028.

Other backbench MPs were notably even more nonconformist on the government’s net zero commitments. Commenting on the Uxbridge result on GB News, former business secretary Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg said: “What works [electorally] is getting rid of unpopular, expensive green policies”. Craig Mackinlay, chair of the controversial net zero scrutiny group of Conservative MPs, warned Sunak against pursuing “overbearing costs, charges, taxes” associated with Britain’s plan to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The essential argument of Gove and co. is thus: that while British voters may declare that they care about green politics to pollsters, they will ultimately reject measures that impose a personal cost. In this view, the best route for a Conservative recovery at the next election will involve minimising, or even backtracking on, the net zero target.

With speculation reaching fever pitch on Monday that the government could begin ditching net zero measures, Rishi Sunak’s spokesperson suggested that such policies were under constant consideration — albeit not a formal or specific review. It came after the prime minister himself affirmed that, while he wants to make “proportionate and pragmatic” progress towards net-zero by 2050, “[the transition must not] unnecessarily give people more hassle and more costs in their lives”.

It is certainly conceivable that Rishi Sunak could begin jettisoning net zero-chasing policies — including the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 and the £120 annual levy to fund the development of low-carbon hydrogen. Our prime minister, after all, is far from a zealous convert to the green agenda. 

While recent prime ministers have made a virtue of their green credentials — notably Boris Johnson under whom the aforementioned measures were introduced, and Theresa May whose premiership enshrined the 2050 net zero target in law — Rishi Sunak’s lack of environmental enthusiasm appears a core theme of his premiership. The PM’s former minister for the international environment Zac Goldsmith noted last month: “He’s just not motivated by these issues, he’s not interested, they don’t move him”. 

The Climate Change Committee, headed by “Green Tory”-in-chief Lord Deben, was similarly withering in its verdict on the government’s lack of net zero progress. The CCC warned the government was off track on 41 out of 50 key targets and that its confidence in future “carbon budgets” being met had gone “markedly” backwards in the past year.

A new strategy?

It is also no secret that the chatter surrounding the PM’s climate commitments is chiming with concerns in the Conservative parliamentary rank and file that a change in political emphasis is needed.

Strategically, the prime minister’s “five priorities” remain, but last week’s good news on inflation aside, all other indicators appear to be pointing in the wrong direction. With the core tenets of Sunakism — defined deliberately on strict managerial lines — in the process of being upended, therefore, it has inspired rumours that No 10 is angling at a broader “reset” in their approach, right now hostage to the PM’s ill-fated New Year oath-swearing.

I have written before that with Sunak’s five pledges strategy under strain, the prime minister might begin to reach for “dead cats” in a ploy to garner some political relief. The thinking is thus: with Sunak losing the argument on his five pledges — and the narrative spinning so definitely out of his favour — the prime minister should muster a new line of attack so shocking that the media cannot help but pay attention. An anti-green blitz, it seems, would fall in line with this approach. 

But the prime minister has already for some time been escalating his government’s activism on the green agenda. Leveraging the unpopular tactics of Just Stop Oil, Sunak has claimed dubiously that “it does appear that these eco-zealots … are writing Keir Starmer’s energy policy”. Elsewhere, Grant Shapps, the energy security and net zero secretary, has branded Labour the party “the political wing of Just Stop Oil” and urged Keir Starmer to cover the costs for the group’s actions. 

Moreover, in an interview with the Financial Times last week, Shapps vowed that the government will “max out” the UK’s remaining reserves of North Sea oil and gas. It amounted to a clear attempt to create a dividing line with Labour: Keir Starmer’s party is committed to granting no new North Sea licences if his party wins the next general election.

So, in truth, the government is already bidding to make the pace and scale of Net Zero a wedge issue at the next general election. It is an attempt by the prime minister to force Labour’s hand, picking an area on which Sir Keir has already signalled he will not shadow the government’s approach. Of course, one clear lesson from Selby, Somerton and even Uxbridge is that a central challenge for the Conservative party is to motivate their electors — many of whom chose to stay at home rather than vote for either the Labour or Liberal Democrat parties. An escalation in culture war hostilities, with a laser focus on green issues, might do just that.

There are also rumours that at Conservative party conference in October, the prime minister might pen a fresh final-year pledge to major on in the forthcoming election. Do not be surprised if this is a pledge on “energy security” and is launched in tandem with new targets on North Sea drilling. The government, it seems, is intent on using Starmer’s supposed green intensity against him in the lead-up to a general election expected in 2024.