20 September, 2023
The Guardian, by Fiona Harvey

Rishi Sunak’s determination to roll back some of the UK’s key climate policies risks opening up rifts within his own party, as senior Conservatives expressed their deep unease at the move.

Proposals to delay or water down green measures, such as pushing back the dates for ending sales of petrol and diesel cars, and gas boilers, are likely to be fleshed out later this week.

The move is intended to drive a “green wedge” between the Tories and Labour, whose leader, Sir Keir Starmer, vowed this summer to “throw everything” at the climate crisis.

But there are strong indications that the wedge could end up being driven into the Tory party itself. Many senior Conservatives, who have championed policies to support the goal of reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, are furious at what they see as a U-turn and betrayal.

Ben Goldsmith, the chair of the Conservative Environment Network, told the Guardian: “Any decision to backtrack in our efforts to tackle the greatest challenge of our time would be on the wrong side of history, and of the polls too. People of all political persuasions want immediate action. They want nature restored and the climate problem solved. They know that the solutions are cleaner, better and increasingly cheaper than the polluting industries which stand to benefit from continued inaction.”

Alok Sharma, the former cabinet minister who led the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow in 2021, is in New York for the UN secretary general’s climate ambition summit, taking place on Wednesday, alongside the UN general assembly. He wrote on Twitter: “For any party to resile from this agenda will not help economically or electorally.”

Chris Skidmore, the outgoing Tory MP and former minister who wrote a review of the Tories’ net zero approach, also warned of the economic consequences. He said: “If this is true, the decision will cost the UK jobs, inward investment and future economic growth that could have been ours by committing to the industries of the future. It will potentially destabilise thousands of jobs and see investment go elsewhere. And ultimately, the people who will pay the price for this will be householders whose bills will remain higher as a result of inefficient fossil fuels and being dependent on volatile international fossil fuel prices.”

The Guardian has seen evidence that Conservative MPs are privately discussing sending letters of no confidence in the prime minister to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 committee, with a view to gathering enough support for a vote.

Voices on the right of the Tory party, and in sections of the rightwing media, have been urging the prime minister to take an anti-net zero tack since he took office last year. They want to generate a “culture war”, akin to that seen in the US where most of the candidates hoping to bag the Republican party nomination for president have refused to affirm climate science, or shrugged off the need for climate action.

Whether such a culture war could work in the UK is a matter of doubt. In polls, large majorities of voters consistently say they want to see strong action on the climate. Young people are particularly engaged, citing the climate as a top priority. Businesses, too, have long geared up to fulfil their part in net zero – many will have their plans thrown off course by any U-turn, and will be exasperated by a recurrence of the political turmoil they thought had been settled with the defenestration of Liz Truss.

Sam Richards, a former Tory Downing Street adviser under Boris Johnson, now founder of the Britain Remade thinktank, contrasted Sunak’s actions with the green investment strategies of Joe Biden in the US, the EU and China. “At the very moment [they] and others are investing trillions in building new clean industries, the government now appears set to inject more uncertainty for businesses and put Britain further behind our rivals,” he said.

When at the Treasury, Sunak frequently obstructed or watered down green policies put forward by Boris Johnson, including hobbling measures to insulate Britain’s homes. But when he took over after the disastrous leadership of Liz Truss, who sought to roll back green measures and cast doubt on the net zero target, he appeared willing to restore a moderate approach. His cabinet contained several proponents of climate action, including the self-identified green Tory Jeremy Hunt, the defence secretary, Grant Shapps, and the former environment secretary Michael Gove.

However, members of cabinet previously identified with green issues seem to have swallowed their misgivings. Zac Goldsmith, the former MP ennobled by Boris Johnson, carried on as minister under Sunak until his resignation in late June. Shortly after his resignation, he criticised those he felt were back-pedalling. “I don’t think you can understand and care about the gravity of this issue and at the same time be willing to take your foot off the accelerator for political expediency,” he told the Guardian at the time. “I just think that would require you to be a monster.”