How much of a threat to Rishi Sunak are his ‘green Tory’ rebels?

Parliament is expected to vote today on the government’s flagship bill to guarantee oil and gas licensing rounds in the North Sea. 

The Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, which would require the regulator to hold annual licensing rounds for North Sea drilling for oil and gas if passed, previously formed the centrepiece of Rishi Sunak’s first King’s Speech as prime minister. And it also features centrally in Sunak’s broader political pitch as prime minister. 

Indeed, while the plan has enraged green MPs of all parties — the controversy that naturally flows from the bill is in some senses expected and desired. 

By emphasising his purportedly “pragmatic” approach to climate policy, the prime minister seeks to draw a dividing line with the Labour Party — who he lampoons as over-zealous on green issues. In short, by defining such debates on his own terms, Sunak intends to put Labour on the wrong side of public opinion. 

And so the prime minister desperately goads Keir Starmer, with little nuance but imperious intent, by weaponising “wedge issues” and laying “traps”. The Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, which frays mainstream consensus and opens battle lines ahead of an election this year, can reasonably be viewed along such lines. 

Step back and this approach broadly — and therefore the licensing bill specifically — has a curious origin story. 

The machinations informing Sunak’s “wedge politics” can arguably be traced back to the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election in July last year. This seat, vacated by former prime minister and prominent “green Tory” Boris Johnson, was won by the Conservatives in 2023 by the slimmest of margins. 

In the contest, the Conservative candidate and now-MP Steve Tuckwell capitalised on London Labour mayor Sadiq Khan’s controversial plans to extend the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ). The cost of environmentally-conscious policy, the prime minister consequently concluded, could be leveraged into a totemic national concern. Net zero targets were pushed back and “pragmatism” was quickly embraced.

Week-in-Review: From Greek marbles to net zero, Sunak’s embrace of ‘wedge politics’ is taking a toll

In the end, Sunak’s net zero rejig featured front and centre of his broader rebrand as a “change candidate” at Conservative Party Conference. This approach still has some life in it, it seems — based on the prime minister’s somewhat confused pitch today that voters should “stick with the plan delivering long-term change”.

In this way, the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill is significant in explaining the historical trajectory of Sunak’s government as the prime minister has slowly given in to those siren voices advocating for a more openly antagonistic politics. 

But here’s the issue: although critical Conservative MPs (especially those emanating from the Net Zero Scrutiny Group) like to caricature climate politics as purely the reserve of “the left”, Rishi Sunak has not only angered opposition parties with his net zero shifting. Rather, some of his most concerned and outspoken critics on the environment derive from his backbenches. 

Take soon-to-be-former MP Chris Skidmore, for instance. 

Skidmore is the archetypal “green Tory”. As interim Minister of State for Energy and Clean Growth from May to July 2019, he signed the UK’s net zero pledge into law. He subsequently served as the chair of the Government Review of Net Zero — with the resultant report making 129 recommendations to ministers on how to take economic advantage of the transition to net zero.

On Friday, as was widely reported, he stated his intention to stand down as a Conservative MP in a move that will trigger a by-election in his Kingswood constituency. In a calm but coruscating resignation missive, Skidmore cited the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill by name. It “clearly promotes the production of new oil and gas”, he maintained — adding that that “the future will judge harshly” those MPs that vote for the bill. 

Chris Skidmore to stand down as Conservative MP over ‘harmful’ oil and gas plans

This is a serious issue for Sunak — and not solely, or at all, on account of Skidmore’s scathing criticism. For Kingswood has a majority of 11,220 and a by-election here will be seriously winnable for Labour. Indeed, the 12 per cent swing Labour needs to win the seat might be considered “mere” — after it gained swings of 21 and 24 per cent in by-elections in Mid Bedfordshire and Selby late last year.

But, Sunak’s electoral travails aside, Skidmore is not the only “green Tory” critic of the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill. Former president of COP26 Sir Alok Sharma, for one, has labelled the legislation “a total distraction”. Sharma will not vote for the “smoke and mirrors bill”, he confirmed to the BBC this morning. 

Sharma and Skidmore, whose leadership on climate policy is informed by their former roles as COP26 president and Net Zero Review author respectively, are known rebels of Sunak’s net zero positioning. They have been consistently outspoken in their criticism of the PM’s approach from the beginning of his post-Uxbridge anti-green tilt. 

‘A total distraction’: Alok Sharma on ‘smoke and mirrors’ plan for more North Sea oil drilling

The question this evening, therefore, as MPs divide over the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, will be whether Skidmore and Sharma are joined in their criticism by other environmentally-conscious Conservatives. 

Former prime minister Theresa May has already voiced less-than-coded criticisms of the bill. Speaking in the debate on the King’s Speech, which featured the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill, May questioned whether the government is being sufficiently “strong in ambition” to meet the 2050 net zero target — which, of course, she set in law in the dogs days of her premiership. 

She told the House: “Good government is not about grabbing short-term decisions to get a headline, it is about doing what is in the national interest and in the longer-term future interest of this country”.

Philip Dunne, chair of the environmental audit committee and another notable green Tory, will be another to watch tonight. 

In some senses, Skidmore’s warning that “the future will judge harshly” those who vote for the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill could be interpreted as a message to critical, but loyal, “green Tories” who will this afternoon be weighing up their options. 

A threat?

Ultimately, Skidmore’s decision to press the eject button has left the prime minister facing another tricky by-election — one that is more winnable for Labour than its recent triumphs in Tamworth, Selby and Mid Beds. 

And, given Sunak’s decision to water down his net zero offering began with a by-election in Uxbridge, there is perhaps some political poetry to the prospect that the backlash might now culminate in Kingswood. But, right now, it is the last thing the prime minister needs. 

Moreover, although we can expect the Conservatives’ still-large majority to quash any “green Tory’ rebellion, stinging contributions from the backbenches from the likes of Sharma and Skidmore — as well as potentially from figures like May and Dunne — will form the focus of the media spotlight. 

So it is not the dividing line drawn between the PM and Keir Starmer that will most occupy attention today — but the “wedge” driven between Sunak, by Sunak, and his party. 

Josh Self is Editor of, follow him on Twitter here. is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.