23 July, 2023
Politico, by Charlie Cooper and Bethany Dawson

The Conservatives held off Labour by just 495 votes in last week's Uxbridge and Ruislip by-election — and one hot topic tipped the scales in their direction.

The Tories successfully turned the campaign for a House of Commons seat into a de facto referendum on the ultra-low emissions zone (ULEZ), a green tax levied on higher-polluting cars and vans by Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan.

ULEZ extends beyond central London — including to Uxbridge — next month, handing the Conservatives a local issue they could use to batter their opponents, at a time when they're otherwise languishing in the national polls.

Green campaigners already worry that both parties will now decide to jettison policies aimed at both cleaning up the air and decarbonizing the economy — so-called net zero goals — for fear of alienating voters.

"I don't think there is any doubt that ULEZ was the reason that we lost the election in Uxbridge," said Labour leader Keir Starmer on Saturday.

“We lost the by-election on day one, because of that,” a senior Labour activist, granted anonymity in order to speak frankly about the result, said.

Fights to come

Both the Conservatives and Labour are committed to ambitious net zero targets.

These involve pushing through major changes to transport and infrastructure in a bid to clean up industry. And that means there are plenty of big fights ahead.

Replacing gas boilers with electric heat pumps in millions of homes is a prerequisite for hitting net zero, for example, but — short of any additional government incentives — can cost consumers thousands of pounds a pop.

The U.K. is also just seven years away from a ban on selling new petrol and diesel car sales in order to encourage the switch to electric vehicles — which are cheaper to run but involve considerably higher up-front costs.

The push toward carbon-free electricity by the early 2030s will require a drastic increase in electricity grid infrastructure, like pylons and cables. Veteran Tory MP Bernard Jenkin previously told POLITICO that no issue in 30 years had “raised so much passion in my constituency” as the idea of building more pylons across the countryside.

Former Conservative Energy Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg was quick out of the traps on Friday, warning that the lesson of Uxbridge was that “high-cost green policies are not popular.”

The Conservative Party’s green caucus recognizes the risk, too, but sees a different fix.

Sam Hall, chair of the Conservative Environment Network, jabbed back at Rees-Mogg, saying it would be “wrong” for the party to conclude, “as some are already doing, that other environmental policies are unpopular with voters.”

Conservative MP Chris Skidmore, a former energy minister who has urged Sunak not to go soft on decarbonization, said the “key” lesson from Uxbridge was to ensure that green policies are “properly designed” and efforts made to ensure households “benefit from the change” — rather than feeling the impact in their pocket.

Sam Richards, chief executive of Britain Remade and a former energy and environment adviser to Boris Johnson, said the result “underlines the political reality that, at a time when families are struggling with the cost of living, policies to accelerate decarbonization have to make voters’ lives easier, and can’t add additional pressures to household bills."

A huge challenge facing both parties in the race to net zero, however, is that few alternatives to troublesome tax-and-spend schemes look politically easier.

Richards argued that the government should intervene to reform the U.K.'s notoriously strict planning rules to make the clean energy rollout quicker. That “won’t cost us a penny,” he argues.

Yet both parties will be aware of just how badly planning reforms can go down on the doorstep, and Sunak has already faced rebellions from his own party on exactly this subject.

The Uxbridge result “unquestionably risks a chilling effect on environmental policies that could set back progress towards net zero by years,” according to Joss Garman, director at the European Climate Foundation and a former Labour adviser.

The question now is whether both main British parties will see the result in Uxbridge and run a mile from their environmental goals — or simply work harder on the detail and messaging.

"When it comes to green commitments, it's not a question of whether they should be done, of course it needs to be done — it's how they're done," said Labour's Starmer on Saturday. "So there's a discussion to be had about that."