Tue, 21 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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An Unofficial Election Campaign Has Begun And Rishi Sunak's Net Zero Gamble Is Just The Start

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visiting Writtle University College (Alamy)

6 min read

An unexpectedly frenetic week in Westminster has confirmed something figures across the political spectrum have already started whispering: the general election campaign is unofficially underway, many months before an actual vote is expected to take place.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is going on the offensive, making bold policy announcements that he hopes will create clear dividing lines between the Tories and Labour in the eyes of the public, even if he rubs some Conservative backbenchers up the wrong way.

“The broad view is there’s going to be a change [of government] next year, so what have they got to lose?,” one former Cabinet minister told PoliticsHome.

A general election must be called before the end of 2024, although opinions vary on whether the Prime Minister will choose to call it in the spring or hold out until Autumn.

Isaac Levido, the Tory elections strategist who is expected to play a key role in Sunak's 2024 campaign, has told the Prime Minister that he needs to present himself as the "change" candidate – despite his party having been in government for 13 years – in order to have a chance of beating Labour leader Keir Starmer to No 10. 

Until now, Sunak has spent much of his time in Downing Street trying to restore stability after several years of chaos and acrimony among Conservative MPs. The PM has been largely successful in that endeavour, and has racked up some successes on the international stage along the way – most notably the Windsor framework for Northern Ireland, agreed with the European Union, although the Democratic Unionist Party feels differently

But neither success has had major cut-through with the public, who are still reeling from the chaos of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss' administrations, and polling suggests that Sunak is no closer to keeping the Tories in office beyond next year than he did when he was installed as leader nearly a year ago.

Opinion polls published this week have put the Labour Party around 20 per cent ahead of the Tories, while Sunak's personal ratings appear to be heading in the wrong direction.

With time running out to turn it around, No 10 has now shifted gear. 

The Prime Minister's contentious announcement this week that he would relax some of the government's net zero policies is the first clear example of this new chapter in action.

While Sunak insisted "this isn't about politics", his decision to postpone the planned ban on the sale of petrol and diesel cars from 2030 to 2035 will be used by Tories to claim that they are taking a "pragmatic" approach to tackling climate change, while accusing Labour of pursuing an idealistic approach at the expense of cash-strapped, ordinary people.

One of the reasons the Prime Minister could opt to call a general election as early as May, which a growing number of Tories believe he will do, is that it would coincide with the London mayoral election. This would give Conservative strategists the opportunity to tie their aggressive anti-Ultra Low Emissions Zone campaign in the capital with a wider national promise to protect drivers.

The shift on environmental policy is also seen as an attempt to court voters who backed the Conservatives at the 2019 general election but have since drifted away. There is growing concern in Tory circles about "apathy" and the real possibility that if a large chunk of their core vote decides to stay at home come polling day, it would result in a sizable parliamentary majority for Starmer's Labour. 

But cooling on climate commitments is not without a risk for the Conservatives. There is concern among MPs that while some of the individual measures announced by Sunak on Wednesday may poll well in isolation, taken together they risk fueling an overall narrative that the Tories are backtracking on the environment – doing further damage to their electoral prospects.

“I am really worried about opinion polls showing the Conservatives falling to 10 per cent among people in their thirties, and only leading with people in their retirement age," one senior Tory told PoliticsHome.

"Strategically, that’s something the party should be really worried about.

“When the people who are throwing their caps in the air are the climate-change-don’t-care lobby, one should be worried about the electoral consequences.”

Conservative MPs in constituencies where the Liberal Democrats are the main challengers are particularly concerned about Sunak's net zero shift backfiring on them.

“The government line is going to be: ‘We’re not moving 2050, we’re looking for a more proportionate approach, and the UK is already a world leader.’ But optically it’s going to be very tricky...  In a seat where the Lib Dems are challenging, they will play on this heavily," an MP in an area where the Lib Dems are the main challenger told PoliticsHome earlier this week

Some Tories have expressed fury about the implications for the automotive industry, complaining that major car-makers have invested hundreds of millions of pounds in electric vehicle production in the UK based on repeated assurances from the government that the ban on petrol and diesel cars would go ahead in 2030 as planned.

Conservatives with links to the industry who spoke to PoliticsHome said they expect some car makers to ignore the delay and continue working to the 2030 deadline – not least because they expect Labour to be in charge in a year's time. Ed Miliband, the shadow climate and net zero secretary, has confirmed that his party would revert back to the 2030 target if elected to government.

Sunak is expected to make more announcements in the coming weeks in a bid to cement his vision in the public consciousness. PoliticsHome understands plans to overhaul A-levels and shortening HS2 are next on his agenda.

The main question facing Sunak is whether this attempted reset makes a significant difference to public perception and Conservative prospects at this stage.

Many Tories are highly sceptical that he can credibly pose as a "change" candidate while trying to secure the Conservative party's fifth successive election victory. “Frankly, it’s very hard to do when you’ve been around 13 years," admitted one ex-secretary of state.

As for Labour, Starmer's message to his new-look Shadow Cabinet is: "If not them, why us?".

The Labour leader has instigated a gear shift of his own, instructing his shadow ministers to do less "Tory bashing" and focus more on coming up with solutions for the problems facing the country. As PoliticsHome reported recently, Labour strategists believe the big challenge they face between now and the next general election is convincing a pessimistic and "anti-politics" British public that the opposition party is actually capable of improving the country if it is elected to government next year.

This week, Starmer has demonstrated greater confidence in talking about issues such as Brexit which not so long ago he was accused of avoiding because they were too dangerous for his party. While pollsters say the public agrees that the UK should have closer trade ties with the European Union, they stress that the Labour leader is walking a "tightrope" in making the case for rewriting Johnson's Brexit deal without making himself vulnerable to Tory attacks that he wants to re-open the bitter 2016 debate.

That scores of Conservative MPs immediately seized on the Labour leader saying he would not "diverge" from the European Union is a clear early sign that Conservative Campaign Headquarters is already reheating their claim that a former campaigner for a second Brexit referendum cannot be trusted to respect the result of the referendum.

The Prime Minister is starting to draw his battle lines for the next general election. Whether they resonate with the general public remains to be seen.

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