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LONDON — Save the planet without offending motorists or your own warring MPs. What could be simpler?
Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party is languishing in the national polls as an election looms next year. But the U.K. prime minister has seized on a recent by-election victory to side with drivers against government environmental action, and enraged green groups by pressing ahead with a plan to allow more oil and gas drilling in the North Sea.
At the same time, Sunak is standing behind an ambitious — and legally-binding — Conservative pledge to cut carbon emissions to net-zero by 2050.
Not everyone in his party — which has vocal caucuses with opposing takes on climate policy — is convinced he can keep walking that tightrope.
The Uxbridge factor
The symbolic shift has its roots in Uxbridge, a west London constituency the Tories had been tipped to lose in a recent by-election.
But the governing party snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, tapping into local anger about the Labour mayor of London’s plan to expand the city’s ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) which levies charges on high-polluting vehicles.
Some Tory strategists now think they’ve spotted an opening. Sunak himself has already responded to Uxbridge with hints that some targets on the way to 2050 could be watered down. He has declared himself “on the side of motorists.”
Sunak is not going to roll back the green agenda wholesale, the thinking goes. Instead, the aim is to court votes and open up a dividing line with Labour where environmental protection intersects with the cost of living.
Climate policies, including moves to reduce U.K. net carbon emissions to zero by 2050, are relatively popular across the political spectrum — but voters harbor concerns on the specifics.
“If the government position is framed as being ‘anti-green’ that’s not likely to work, because the public do recognize the importance of climate change,” explains Keiran Pedley of polling company Ipsos. “If it is framed within the context of the cost of living it has more potential to resonate.”
Robert Goodwill, a Conservative MP who chairs the environment select committee says “It’s not abandoning our climate change promises” to recognize that “the burden of addressing climate change seems to be falling on those least able to pay.”
Goodwill adds that Sunak’s recent show of support for motorists will be welcomed in rural seats like his, where public transport is unreliable and people’s jobs depend on cars.
A former Tory election strategist, granted anonymity to speak candidly about possible planning inside the party, warns that “generic retreat on net-zero isn’t going to work” but believes there is nonetheless mileage in “hammering [the message] that when you get Labour politicians they massively put up the cost of driving — just look at Sadiq Khan.”
One Cabinet minister confirmed this was part of the government’s thinking. They said they were personally committed to net-zero but that they spied “political space” wherever “Labour strays into becoming doctrinaire about it.” This, they said, was exactly what Labour had done with ULEZ.
Style over substance?
The Conservatives’ change of direction is mainly a presentational one, according to Jack Richardson, head of environment and energy at right-of-center think tank Onward. “There’s undoubtedly a shift in the vibes coming out of government — we’re hearing more about oil and less about renewables. But in terms of policy little has changed,” Richardson said.
Certainly, while Sunak has tinkered with a few deadlines in recent days — including ditching a 2028 target for ensuring rented properties are more energy efficient — big chunks of the net-zero agenda are unchanged.
A ban on selling new petrol and diesel cars by 2030 remains in place, as does a 2025 de facto ban on gas boilers in newbuild homes and a 2035 carbon-free electricity target. The granting of new oil and gas licenses and carbon capture rollout were announced this week in line with longstanding plans.
Yet the partial wobble has been enough to draw the ire of some green Conservatives, who believe any backpedaling is both morally wrong and likely to lose them votes at the next election.
Sunak faces pressure from climate moderates inside his own party, unconvinced there is a real political or moral upside to signaling a shift away from the agenda.
Former Environment Minister Zac Goldsmith told POLITICO: “Rejection of ULEZ has come to be seen as a rejection of all green policies and there is zero evidence for that.”
Former energy minister Chris Skidmore called this week’s granting of fossil fuel licenses “the wrong decision at the wrong time” and warned Sunak he risked being on the “wrong side of history.”
No. 10 is acutely aware of the strong feelings on net-zero among Tory backbenchers on both sides. Two powerful caucuses with opposite views — the Conservative Environment Network and the Net Zero Scrutiny Group — have been increasingly vocal about the issue in recent months.
Sunak’s deputy chief of staff, Rupert Yorke, and his political secretary, James Forsyth, are working with the whips alongside James Nation and Nick Park in the No.10 policy unit to try and hammer out an approach that appeals to all sides.
Yet a strategy giving comfort to motorists while sticking to headline pledges on emissions carries its own big risks.
Onward’s Richardson cautions that making anti-green noise is not consequence-free, as “conflicting reports we’ve seen in the papers on this are really bad for investment.” Andrew Forrest, an international investor and climate philanthropist, this week made clear he’s rethinking his own U.K. bets as he accused Sunak’s government of putting too much faith in unproven carbon capture technology in its dash for North Sea oil.
As Rob Ford, professor of politics at Manchester University, points out, the risk is that a big shift away from net-zero will “cost more votes than it will gain” — because the “only people who will pay attention to it are the people who don’t like it.”