Sunak gambles on British voters focusing more on costs than climate

LONDON – Rishi Sunak’s decision to water down a key part of the UK’s green agenda represents a gamble that conceding some ground to the climate-sceptic political right will appeal to Britons buffeted by a cost-of-living crisis. 

In a hastily arranged speech Wednesday after his planned U-turn was leaked to the BBC, the British prime minister said a ban on the sale of new fossil-fuel cars – a central plank of a legally-binding commitment to hit net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 – would be pushed back five years to 2035.

Reports of the sudden shift had sparked a backlash within his Conservative Party over fears it would damage Britain’s international standing and dissuade carmakers from investing. Mr Sunak convened a call with his senior ministerial team as he tried to tame what he later called the “flak” he was facing. 

When he finally appeared in front of the cameras, Mr Sunak framed his decision as part of his “new approach” to tackling climate change, one that meets targets but puts a “fairer and more proportionate” burden on Britons. He denied being driven by politics, or that he was watering down the UK’s ambitions.

“We’ve stumbled into a consensus about the future of our country, that no one seems to be happy with,” said Mr Sunak, who campaigned for Brexit and served as former premier Boris Johnson’s chancellor. “If we continue down this path, we risk losing the consent of the British people.”

Despite his denials, Mr Sunak’s move and the language around it is highly political. His Tories trail Keir Starmer’s opposition Labour Party by about 20 points in national polls ahead of an election expected next year, and the prime minister has been under fierce pressure to find so-called wedge issues to campaign on. Accusing Labour of planning to raise taxes, or forcing the party to take positions on moves made by the Tories is a classic part of the play book.

The Conservatives have been eyeing green policies as fertile ground after the governing party narrowly fended off a Labour surge in Mr Johnson’s former parliamentary seat in north-west London in July. Concerns about the expansion of London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone, a flagship green policy of the capital’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan, played a part in the election result.

But according to political analysts, the Tories could be reading too much into their 495-vote win in Uxbridge and South Ruislip. The swing to Labour there would still erase the Tories’ majority if repeated nationwide in 2024.

“There aren’t that many straws that the Conservatives can clutch at now and Uxbridge is one,” said Professor of Politics Tim Bale at Queen Mary, University of London. Pushing back the ban on new fossil-fuel cars is consistent with Mr Sunak’s own politics, he said, as well as the party’s recent trend to import US Republican-style culture wars to the UK including on climate scepticism.

Mr Sunak said repeatedly he was committed to net-zero and that the UK had to get to grips with climate change. Yet the speech also referenced green views common on the political right, including that net-zero means taxes on meat or forcing households to recycle into seven different bins. Linking future costs of mitigating climate change to the current cost-of-living crisis also fits the right-wing narrative that eco-warriors want Britons to wear a “hair-shirt.”

“We are not going to save the planet by bankrupting British people,” Home Secretary Suella Braverman, a prominent figure on the right of the Tory Party, told Times Radio before Mr Sunak’s speech. Former leader Liz Truss, whose disastrous premiership ended in record time last year but who still has a following in the party, also gave a speech calling for smaller government and for the net-zero target to be pushed back.

A key problem for Mr Sunak is that even trying to put the UK on what he calls a new trajectory is an implicit criticism of previous Tory administrations. Net-zero was put into law under former Prime Minister Theresa May, while Johnson saw embracing a green agenda as a way to stabilise Britain’s global reputation in the wake of his successful campaign to leave the European Union. 

On Wednesday, Mr Johnson hit out at the confusion facing businesses. “We cannot afford to falter now or in any way lose our ambition for this country.” 

Mr Simon Clarke, a former cabinet minister under both Mr Johnson and Ms Truss, was a rare voice on the Tory right who criticised Mr Sunak, saying that he would “shatter” the political consensus and that voters in northern England, set to be the battleground in the next general election, support net-zero because the policy delivers jobs in new industries.

“Nobody serious in politics was talking about banning flying, taxing meat,” he said later on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.