Inside Story

From net zero to rock bottom

With an eye to the next election, the British government has backtracked on climate initiatives to try to drive a wedge into Labour

Michael Jacobs London 25 September 2023 3258 words

Job done: Britain’s prime minister Rishi Sunak in the Downing Street Briefing Room last Wednesday after his election-focused climate announcements. Justin Tallis/Pool via AP

What do you do if you are fifteen points behind in the opinion polls and a general election is due within a year or so? This was the question prime minister Rishi Sunak was wrestling with over the British summer as he contemplated his post-holiday relaunch.

We learned his answer last week. You abandon and attack climate change policy, invent unpopular measures you claim your opponents support, and pledge you will never force such monstrous burdens on hard-working voters.

To the dismay of many in his own Conservative Party but the joy of the right-wing press, Sunak has come out fighting on the territory his predecessors had been careful to avoid. Climate change policy has been the subject of consensus among all of Britain’s major political parties for nearly two decades, giving the United Kingdom an enviable reputation as a global leader not just in emissions reduction but also in making climate policy with public consent.

Sunak has decided to rip all that up. The government is still committed to achieving its statutory target of net zero emissions by 2050, he said in his much-anticipated speech last week, but it isn’t willing to impose “unacceptable costs” on ordinary households to achieve it. It would therefore reverse three key policies introduced by previous Conservative administrations. The ban on new petrol and diesel cars would be pushed back from 2030 to 2035. The ban on new gas boilers (to be replaced by heat pumps and biofuels) would be pushed back to the same date and would no longer apply to poorer households. And landlords would not be required to insulate tenants’ homes. Sunak also took the opportunity to rule out four other policies: taxes on meat, higher taxes on flying, the compulsory separation of household waste into seven different recycling bins, and compulsory car sharing.

As intended, Sunak’s speech caused an immediate uproar. Environmentally minded MPs in his own party condemned the decisions. Green groups proclaimed themselves appalled. Business groups decried the ad hoc changes to regulatory frameworks and warned that investment would fall in sectors generating rising numbers of green jobs.

At the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Express, meanwhile, there were celebrations. Their collective view was expressed in a triumphant Mail editorial congratulating Sunak for finally “shatter[ing] the cosy consensus, which has let an out-of-touch Westminster elite think it can bully a compliant public into footing a mind-blowing climate bill… This motley assortment of eco-zealots, the liberal Left and posh Tory rebels — egged on, of course, by the BBC — are invariably comfortably enough off to be able to swallow such costs. But for hard-working and practical-minded voters… Mr Sunak’s rethink will make life less tough, less cold and less poor.”

Sunak’s election strategists didn’t write the Mail’s leader, but they might as well have done. The prime minister’s purpose is transparent. He wants to create a clear dividing line between his government and the Labour Party, which has made strong climate policy a central plank of its platform, and in doing so to present the opposition as an out-of-touch elite and his own party as the defenders of ordinary people. He has, in short, decided to drag climate change into a culture-war battle and make that war the foundation of his election strategy.

If this sounds somewhat Australian, it is. Sunak’s chief election strategist is Isaac Levido, protégé of famed Liberal Party election guru Lynton Crosby and architect of Scott Morrison’s 2019 election victory. His strategy for Sunak comes straight from the Crosby playbook: use culture-war framing to drive a wedge between your opponents and their own supporters, forcing them to defend unpopular policies on your favoured territory. And don’t worry too much if this requires a measure of blatant dishonesty.

As many commentators observed — and as a BBC interview with Sunak expertly highlighted — it was the dishonesty that most marked out the prime minister’s speech. Every single policy Sunak claimed to have overturned was falsely described.

Neither the ban on new petrol and diesel cars nor the prohibition on gas boilers would have required consumers to fork out “£5000, £10,000, £15,000” more on their alternatives, as Sunak claimed. Innovation in battery technology has so rapidly reduced their cost that electric cars are expected to be cheaper than their fossil fuel competitors as soon as 2027. In practice, postponing the petrol and diesel ban will have very little effect on consumers’ decisions. In any case, 80 per cent of cars bought each year are second hand, to which the ban would not apply.

Heat pump costs are also falling rapidly — driven by the government’s phase-out plans. Consumers also get generous subsidies to install them, making their actual costs to households far less than Sunak claimed. And the requirement to insulate their homes was not on all property owners, as Sunak implied. It was only on private landlords. So, far from saving money for ordinary households, its abolition will actually leave tenants facing higher energy bills.

As for the four other measures Sunak claimed to have scrapped — from taxes on meat to compulsory car sharing — not one of them was government policy, or had even been considered. Nor are any of them Labour policy. They are all mythic inventions of the tabloid press designed to whip up public anger at the general notion of stronger climate policy. The claim to have got rid of them was pure Crosby/Levido: imply that these “extremist” absurdities are supported by your opponents and only you can save voters from them. Within minutes of Sunak finishing his speech Tory central office had put out social media messages highlighting these apparently abolished policies and linking them to Labour’s green spending plans.

(Within another few minutes a whole series of memes had appeared ridiculing Sunak’s remarks and listing a variety of other policies Sunak had saved a grateful public from, including compulsory badger-racing and limits on the number of invisible friends children would be allowed.)

Rishi Sunak’s new strategy has finally revealed his political character, and it is not what his supporters claimed it would be when Conservative MPs made him — without a contest or a vote — Britain’s fifth prime minister in five years last November. He was intended to represent a return to normality, a sensible hand on the tiller who could steady the country’s rocking ship of state.

After David Cameron (who called an unnecessary referendum on Brexit and lost it), Theresa May (who called an unnecessary general election, lost her majority in the House of Commons and failed to get Brexit through parliament), Boris Johnson (who illegally suspended parliament, oversaw 180,000 Covid deaths, associated with Russian spies, failed to disclose personal loans from party donors, promoted corrupt government procurement, lied to parliament about lockdown parties, tried to overturn rules on MPs’ standards of behaviour, and promoted supporters accused of bullying and sexual harassment) and Liz Truss (who introduced a budget that crashed the pound and sent interest rates soaring, and was forced to resign by her own MPs after only forty-nine days in the job), it was generally agreed that British politics needed something a little more stable. Though he had only been an MP since 2015, the smooth, very rich and apparently sensible former hedge-fund manager Sunak seemed to fit the bill.

But he has struggled to keep the Tories’ heads above water. On the five modest priorities he spelt out at the beginning of the year, he has so far failed to make any progress. Economic growth has been anaemic, with the economy teetering all year on the edge of recession. Inflation has fallen from 11 per cent to just under 7 per cent, but only after fourteen straight rises in interest rates (from 0.1 to 5.25 per cent) which have led to huge increases in monthly mortgage costs for householders. Sunak pledged to bring down National Health Service waiting lists, but instead they have reached a record high, with more than seven and a half million people now waiting for treatment in England, over three million of them for more than eighteen weeks.

Sunak’s most high-profile pledge, to reduce the number of asylum seekers crossing the English Channel in small boats, has also been his most conspicuous failure. Not only have the numbers continued to increase, but each of the measures aimed at tackling the problem (or, to be more precise, aimed at appearing to tackle the problem) has hit the rocks. The courts have prevented anyone at all from being deported to Rwanda, as the government wanted, to seek asylum there. And the hired-in barge moored off a south-coast port, intended to house 500 asylum seekers, had to be closed after a week when Legionella was found in its water supply.

Meanwhile Britain’s privatised water companies have been discharging raw sewage into the country’s rivers and seas, schools have been forced to shut because they contain dangerously unsafe concrete, and the country’s air-traffic control system was closed down by an error in a single flight plan. Callers to radio phone-in programs and newspaper columnists alike lament that nothing in Britain works anymore and the country has gone to the dogs.

All of which has duly been reflected in Sunak’s polling numbers. Labour has been fifteen to twenty points ahead of the Conservatives in national polling for a year now, sufficient to return it to government with a comfortable majority. Sunak’s approval ratings have fallen to minus 30 per cent, with Labour leader Keir Starmer ahead on almost every leadership quality listed by pollsters. Voters now say they trust Labour over the Conservatives on every major issue.

A general election doesn’t have to be called until January 2025, but May or October next year are seen as the likeliest dates. That gives Sunak a year or less to turn his dire fortunes around. After this week’s relaunch and with Levido in charge, we know how he will seek to do it. Reinforced by relentless tabloid attacks on Labour in general and Starmer in particular, the culture-war framing will be used to try to separate the opposition from its traditional working-class base.

This was how the Brexit referendum was won, and it was how Boris Johnson increased the Conservatives’ majority in the general election of 2019. Labour’s heartland voters in towns and cities across the Midlands and North of England were told that the party they and their families had always supported had become detached from their concerns: pro-EU, insufficiently patriotic, too supportive of immigration, soft on crime, uninterested in the armed services, and too London-centric (read, culturally liberal).

With Labour having governed while the post-2000 globalisation was creating an economic boom in London and the affluent southeast, but largely leaving old industrial areas behind, and having then presided over the great financial crash, many of these voters proved ripe to change their allegiance. Johnson’s stunning election victory in 2019 included a whole swathe of former Labour seats thought to be unwinnable by the Tories. That was why, despite everything, Johnson was tolerated for so long by Tory MPs and members: he had won in areas of the country that had not for years, if ever, returned a Tory MP.

It is these “red wall” seats that Sunak must retain in order to have any chance of winning the next election — and equally that Labour must win back if it is to do so. Both parties are focused laser-like on this task. From now until he calls the election we can confidently expect Sunak to attack Labour for its profligate tax and spending plans and economic recklessness, for wanting to rejoin the EU single market, for trying to reduce prison numbers while the Tories want to lock more criminals up, for wanting higher immigration and less defence spending, and — because the party has been taken over by the woke trans-rights brigade — for being unable to define a woman. This week’s climate row-back was just the start.

Will Labour take the bait? On all but one of those issues, it won’t. Over the past year Keir Starmer — also explicitly influenced by the Australian example — has adopted a classic small-target strategy. If you’re this far ahead in the polls, his reasoning goes, and the Tories keep spectacularly demonstrating their own incompetence, don’t blow it by giving your opponents easy wins.

Like a Roman phalanx curling itself into a tight circle with its shields on the outside, Labour has been busy closing off any available lines of attack from the Tories and their media spear-bearers.

On fiscal policy, Labour’s shadow chancellor of the exchequer Rachel Reeves has insisted that Labour will cut government borrowing and only increase spending if it can identify a way of paying for it. And she has since ruled out almost any tax rise, including higher-rate income taxes, the capital gains tax and a wealth tax, that Labour supporters had hoped might allow some spending commitments to be made.

On defence policy, on crime, on immigration and asylum seekers, Labour has attacked the Tory record but has not committed to any significant changes to government policy. On trans rights, Labour has ruled out gender self-identification without a medical diagnosis.

All eyes were therefore on Starmer for his reaction to Sunak’s anti-climate policy speech. Would he take the same approach he had on all the other wedges the Tories had been trying to hammer between him and his voter base? Would he again cleave close to Tory policy and refuse to allow a gap to open up through which he could be attacked?

Signs suggested he might. Reeves had already watered down Labour’s “climate investment plan” to spend £28 billion a year on green infrastructure and innovation: facing rising borrowing costs, she announced that a Labour government would now only get spending to £28 billion by the end of the parliament.

When the party then lost a by-election in London it had been expected to win, amid widespread voter opposition to the (Labour) mayor’s plans to extend a charge on polluting cars, Starmer had a very public wobble, openly questioning the policy. The Tories took their by-election victory as evidence that green policies imposing costs on voters are unpopular and ripe for attack, and Starmer seemed to be drawing the same conclusion. The environmental movement — inside and beyond the party — was alarmed.

They need not have worried. Starmer’s response to Sunak’s anti-green speech was subtle. Refusing to fall into the trap of a debate about the costs of climate policy to ordinary households, he made no public comment at all on the speech apart from a couple of tweets emphasising that Labour’s renewable energy strategy would create jobs, reduce bills and improve energy security. He left it to his shadow climate minister, former party leader Ed Miliband, to castigate Sunak for “not giving a damn” about climate change, describing the PM as “rattled, chaotic and out of his depth.”

Labour would retain the petrol and diesel ban by 2030 and the responsibility of landlords to insulate their tenants’ homes, Miliband said, both of which would cut ordinary households’ costs. (He notably didn’t promise to restore the ban on gas boilers.) As for the four fictional policies Sunak said he was scrapping, Miliband was scathing. Not only had the Labour Party never proposed a tax on meat, he said, but it was not even the policy of the Vegan Society.

Miliband is well known as strongly committed to climate action. Yet it was not he but shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves who was the decisive figure in Labour’s choice to pick up the climate gauntlet Sunak had thrown down. Reeves, who has been assiduously wooing business leaders over the past year, has been struck not merely by how fed up with Tory incompetence they have become, but also by how green they are.

With US president Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act driving record investment into environmental technologies and sectors in the United States, and the European Union’s Green Deal following suit, Labour has made “green prosperity” the centrepiece of its economic and industrial strategies. It will have been delighted at the furious reaction of business leaders to Sunak’s speech. Why get Starmer to attack Sunak when the UK head of Ford will do it for you?

For party members and activists, Labour’s response will have come as a relief. The leadership’s small-target positioning has been deeply frustrating for those who believe the party needs radical policies to tackle the legacy of thirteen years of Tory rule. Starmer’s bland persona and extreme policy caution have left both members and many political commentators despairing that Labour was not offering the public a positive reason to vote for it but rather merely relying on the Tories to mess up. With the NHS, social care, schools, policing and local government all in crisis, but Labour not promising to spend significant money on any of them, they fear the party will succeed in the general election but fail in government.

In this context Miliband’s climate policy platform has offered a ray of hope. He has managed to persuade Starmer and Reeves to support a bold plan to achieve 100 per cent renewable power by 2030, create a new publicly owned energy company, and insulate nineteen million homes over ten years, generating a claimed 200,000 new jobs across the country. Most radically of all, Labour has pledged to end new oil and gas exploration in the North Sea fields, which would make Britain the first major economy to do so.

Labour hasn’t committed to these policies in the hope that the public supports them. It knows the public does: it is one of the consequences of the eighteen-year cross-party consensus on climate policy. Climate change is now ranked third when voters are asked about the biggest issues facing Britain, behind only the economy and inflation. Over half of voters want to see the government take stronger action, with a quarter happy with current policies and fewer than 20 per cent believing the government is moving too fast. These numbers vary little across Labour and Tory supporters and different parts of the country. Red wall voters are as green as people in the rest of Britain.

Tory strategists think these numbers are soft. They point out that the majorities in favour of tougher climate policy fall when voters are reminded that this might involve them, not just other people, paying more. Levido is convinced that continuous campaigning on the cost of achieving net zero for ordinary households will reduce public support even further. If this means making fictitious claims about those costs, or about Labour policy, so be it. He believes the Tories can peel enough voters away from Labour to make the election competitive.

He may be right. And this is what dismays moderate Tories the most about Sunak’s new stance. They know that their own voters care about climate change, and that strong policies will attract business investment and jobs in the new global green economy. But they also know, from Australia, the United States and elsewhere, that mendacious culture wars can be remarkably effective means of undermining voter confidence in political parties and policies of all kinds.

Britain has been spared this kind of social and political division up to now. But it is about to find out what happens when concerns about the future of the planet are sacrificed on the altar of election strategy. •