Would You like a feature Interview?
All Interviews are 100% FREE of Charge
For a few hours this week, it looked like Rishi Sunak’s premiership was hanging in the balance.
When the BBC leaked the news that he was planning a major rowback on a series of policies designed to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, it set off a panic in Downing Street – and boiling rage in business and Parliament.
Car firms, green campaigners and think-tanks rushed to denounce the U-turn, while several senior MPs, plus Boris Johnson, publicly warned the Prime Minister against abandoning the UK’s commitments. Rumours erupted that no-confidence letters were starting to go in to the Tory backbench chief, Sir Graham Brady.
Mr Sunak had secretly been planning to make the announcement on Thursday or Friday during a visit to a business site, and his team had to scramble to bring the speech forward, moving it to the briefing room in 9 Downing Street.
“It would have been much better if we had been able to announce it in our own way, and speak to some of the stakeholders before,” a No 10 source admitted. Mr Sunak’s allies believe businesses such as Ford would not have had such a furious reaction if they had been briefed on the nuances of the policy change, which will see the ban on sales of new petrol and diesel cars pushed back five years to 2035 but with increasingly tight quotas on their production still taking effect from next year.
But the insider added, “I think you could tell the PM was all over the detail of this” – Mr Sunak had been mulling the move for months, even before the Uxbridge & South Ruislip by-election which brought the environment back to the fore of politics in a row over London’s ultra-low emission zone.
A Downing Street official said MPs who had long been urging Mr Sunak to be bolder in his policy vision had applauded the gambit: “Backbenchers like the front-footed style – let’s say what we believe and say it with conviction. In terms of the Tory response, it was only the names you would expect who were kicking off.”
A minister insisted the Government was not backsliding from its climate change mission – but admitted it could be hard to convince green-minded voters of that argument. “Rishi is absolutely committed to net zero,” they told i. “It’s essential that we do a better job of letting those who for whom this is one of the most important priorities know just how well we’ve performed. We are the world leader. No other major economy has cut its emissions more.
“When the Conservative government came in, electricity from renewables was about 7 per cent. Now it’s almost 50 per cent. But we’ve got to show to people that we’re pragmatic, that we listen. You can’t ride roughshod over people. We can’t allow it to be some religious fervour, otherwise the British people, the quiet majority, will rise up and stop it.”
But warning of the potential risks, the minister added: “We are walking on the edge. Get it wrong and we slide off, and it becomes a truth that Rishi Sunak is not really interested in net zero, he only does it because he has to, his heart’s not in it – and the world reads us as having gone from a leader to something else.”
Pollsters have cast doubt on the electoral wisdom of the net zero bonfire, even if it has pleased the Tory faithful. “It’s possible that at the margins there are voters that maybe were planning to vote Reform UK that might vote for the Conservative party”, said Luke Tryl, a former Conservative aide who now runs the think-tank More in Common. “I think there’s a far greater risk of losing voters.
“A lot of key voters, they didn’t like Boris Johnson, they like Rishi Sunak more, they see him as more of a David Cameron 2.0. And the problem with this announcement is they might realise that he’s a lot more right-wing than they first imagined. So, there’s a double risk of very limited gains, but also the people who are propping up the Tory polling at the moment, the ‘Blue Wall’, thinking they’ve had enough of it.”
That analysis was backed by new polling carried out in the wake of the net zero U-turn that shows Mr Sunak’s popularity has dipped to its lowest level since he became PM. More than two-thirds (68 per cent) of British adults now have an unfavourable view of Mr Sunak according to the YouGov survey.
Labour scents a political opportunity to seize the centre ground on climate policy by emphasising the potential of renewable energy to lower bills and reduce reliance on oil and gas from hostile foreign countries. One source said: “There is a big tent on climate that includes business and most of the public. Greenpeace and Just Stop Oil are not in that tent, neither are the Farages of the world. The Tory party needs to decide if it is in the tent or not.”
But Tories plan to use the issue to dredge up questions about Labour’s economic policy. An insider said: “If they turn around and say they are keeping the targets, the question will then be – well how are you going to pay for it?”
Sir Keir Starmer remains well aware of the risks to his party of any sense it cannot be trusted with the public finances – using the first anniversary of Liz Truss’s disastrous mini-Budget on Saturday to announce a new policy of banning future governments from making fiscal policy without an assessment from the Office for Budget Responsibility.
Mr Sunak’s focus for most of his premiership has been the economy, although some MPs have long been urging him to look beyond the issues of inflation, debt and GDP. One senior Tory said the Prime Minister should not be “too hung up on the economy”, adding: “We can’t fight Labour on the economy because they’re saying the same thing as us. We need to take Labour to a place they can’t go, like being tougher on immigration and crime.”
No 10 and No 11 continue to believe that a period of economic calm is a necessary condition for any hopes of a shock Conservative victory at the next general election. Another fall in inflation this week was a “nice surprise”, a Government source said, although price rises in the UK remain stubbornly faster than those in other rich countries as a result of high energy costs and damaging labour shortages.
In the run-up to the Autumn Statement Jeremy Hunt is seeking to kill off chatter about any possible tax cuts. “It’s ridiculous when you see headlines saying ‘Chancellor defies Tory MPs on tax cuts’,” a Treasury insider said. “Because we have been saying this for a long time. He is very much in the phase of saying, I just need to be explicit with people.”
After inflation data and the net zero announcement, the week was capped off with the surprise news that the Bank of England had decided to put interest rates on hold for now after 14 consecutive rises. “I think we have had quite a good week,” a No 10 adviser said. “It is not all done and we still know there is lots of work to do, but it is good to see our hard work starting to pay off.”
There will be more to come from Mr Sunak as he seeks to show his true colours after a career spent ramping up spending in response to successive crises – and in contrast to his staunchly right-wing personal views. “He is someone who, since he became senior in politics, has had to deal with some extraordinary circumstances which mean he has had to do things he wouldn’t naturally want to be doing,” the adviser said.
“In the pandemic, he was doing things that are not exactly his politics. You will see he is a bit liberated now.”