Whitehouse / Flickr

Donald Trump praising ‘smart’ Rishi Sunak is a sign of things to come

Rishi Sunak’s speech last week — which confirmed reports that the government was indeed watering down its offering on net zero — was met with its fair share of critics. Shadow net zero secretary Ed Miliband was among the more predictable disparagers as he castigated “more dither and more delay” and Sunak himself as a “man without a plan”.

Elsewhere, Conservative MPs Alok Sharma and Chris Skidmore — de facto leaders of the PM’s Green Tory faction as the former President of COP26 and onetime lead on the government’s net zero review respectively — expressed “concern” and, in Skidmore’s case, suggested Sunak was consciously “caus[ing] economic pain

There were supporters too, of course. Steve Baker, a perennial Conservative rebel of yore and now Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, said he was “prouder than ever to follow” Rishi Sunak. Baker’s lobbying as the founder of the Net Zero Scrutiny Group (NZSG) of Conservative MPs had paid off.

But Sunak’s net zero sceptic supporters were not merely limited to payrolled apparatchiks; rather, one supremely conspicuous cheerleader hailed from the other side of the Atlantic: that was Donald Trump. 

On Sunday, the former (and future?) US President took a break from his busy schedule of hectic campaigning and court hearings to praise the prime minister on his social media service “Truth Social”. 

He said: “Prime Minister Sunak of the United Kingdom has very substantially rolled back the ridiculous ‘Climate Mandates’ that the United States is pushing on everyone, especially itself.

“I always knew Sunak was smart, that he wasn’t going to destroy and bankrupt his nation for fake climate alarmists that don’t have a clue”, he added, before concluding:

Congratulations to Prime Minister Sunak for recognizing this SCAM before it was too late! The Green New Hoax will take down the US, perhaps even sooner than our Open Border of Death. IT MUST BE STOPPED. MAGA!!!

Trump’s comments here, viewed alongside prior pronouncements on the climate “hoax”, of course go some way further than any of Sunak’s stated beliefs on net zero. Although the PM pledged to “set out a series of long-term decisions”, last week he repeatedly insisted that new, longer-term targets on electric cars, gas boilers and insulation should not be read as revealing a lack of ambition. The 2050 net zero target, enshrined in law by Theresa May’s government, remains untouched. 

Moreover, Trump’s approach to net zero — informed by a hardline ideological stance on climate change — was in some senses exactly what Sunak argued he was avoiding with his “new approach”. 

“The only realistic path to Net Zero”, Sunak said, is through “pragmatism, not ideology”. 

On net zero, this was the prime minister ostensibly eschewing ideological zealousness as he touted his own “pragmatic”, “consensual”, “honest”, “realistic” and “fair” approach. The subtext was thus: Keir Starmer and the Labour Party are pursuing ideological objectives when it comes to net zero — it is the Conservatives that are the real moderates. 

What Trump’s comments risk exposing, therefore, is the obvious ideological edge to Sunak’s new plans on net zero. 

The prime minister’s decision to break with the vision of the 2019 manifesto and align the government’s position with the net zero-sceptic wing of the Conservative party, of course, cannot merely be attributed to Sunak’s abiding “pragmatism”. Indeed, last week, the prime minister delivered a distinctly conservative pitch on climate politics: this was not merely an electoral gambit — one merely designed to open up some totemic dividing line with Labour — but the prime minister acting on his inner-most ideals.

Trump, plainly, wants to welcome Sunak into his vision of net zero. His unsubtle caricature of the PM’s intentions, therefore, while significantly overstating the extent of the PM’s net zero reinvention, in this way reveals a core truth: Sunak’s approach to net zero is not born of “pragmatism” or “honesty”, but ideology. 

US-UK electoral convergence 

What is more, Trump’s intervention comes ahead of a rare year of electoral convergence for the UK and US — with both sides of the “special relationship” in 2024 set to hold general elections. In fact, it is possible and perhaps likely that the US and UK will be heading to the polls almost at exactly the same time next year. 

In the US, a presidential election must be held on “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in November” — in 2024 that is 5 November. In the UK, the latest an election can be held is in January 2025, but it is well understood that any election campaign spanning the Christmas holidays will be problematic for the PM — certainly given the fact that the Conservative party will need all the activists it can get on the doorstep. 

It means the latest Sunak could realistically go to the polls will be in Autumn 2024 — meaning, if the PM refuses to take the risk of an early contest in the spring or summer, campaigning in the US and UK could coincide pretty exactly.  

And such a Transatlantic electoral convergence could forge in Trump and Sunak a marriage, for the latter certainly, of grave political inconvenience. 

Picture the prime minister on the campaign trail as he is incessantly quoted the likely Republican nominee’s political positions, including on net zero, and forced at every turn to walk a tightrope: neither rebuking nor embracing Trump’s extreme, domestically unpopular positions. 

Here, too, Sunak could face a party-political bind. Trump has his admirers in the Conservative party; during the 2020 presidential election, for instance, Suella Braverman’s foremost patron Sir John Hayes was seen wielding a “Keep America Great” banner. Certainly, in a choice between Trump and Joe Biden, who has been derided as somehow “anti-British”, a selection of Sunak’s colleagues might prefer the former. 

Ultimately, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that a Joe Biden-Donald Trump rematch would benefit Labour leader Keir Starmer rather more than Sunak. In fact, the Labour leader has made no secret of his admiration for the US president. 

A convergence of the UK’s and US’ electoral trajectories could even allow Starmer to reframe key “dividing lines” with the Conservatives — such as that Sunak has sought to draw on net zero. 

Following Biden’s lead through 2024, Starmer will argue the debate on net zero is not about personal cost, but about ideological priorities, economic growth and international partnership. Moreover, rather than accept Sunak’s view of him as some kind of “zealot”, Starmer could suggest it is in fact Sunak who has opted to take an ideological stand, evinced by his apparent harmony with Trump on the issue.

Perhaps tellingly, the Labour leader has already turned his mind to the 2024 US election, recently informing Politico: “It’s clear what my desired outcome would be, but the desired outcome may yield to a different outcome.” 

In this way, one possible consequence of Starmer’s transatlantic kinship with Biden will be that it pushes Sunak more and more into Trump’s political orbit. 

It is something that Trump, as we see with his recent comments on net zero, could look to embrace — even publicly attacking Starmer as he has done previously with Labour politicians.

In the end, the political damage to the prime minister, if Starmer successfully leverages Trump’s apparent endorsement of the PM’s actions for his own electoral purposes, could be significant. (In November 2020, during Biden vs. Trump round one, a Hanbury Strategy poll conducted for Politico showed the Democratic candidate would win every single British constituency if voters were faced with such as choice. That was, of course, before the election denial, January 6th, the indictments and a litany of other controversies). 

The prime minister, therefore, probably needs to come to terms with his apparent harmony with Trump on salient issues — as his rightward tilt on migration, culture wars and net zero slowly begins to invite difficult questions about his relationship with the former president’s own political project. 

And, for Starmer, it could be a clear opportunity to paint Sunak as an ideologue — combatting the PM’s criticism of Labour on issues such as net zero. 

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on Twitter here.

Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.