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Rishi Sunak's Net Zero Shift Sparks "Massive Row" In Tory Party

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak leaves 10 Downing Street (Alamy)

6 min read

Rishi Sunak's decision to water down the government's net zero commitments has sparked a new row among Conservative MPs, offering a reminder of the major divisions that persist in the Tory party. 

Chaos reigned on Tuesday night when the Prime Minister's plan to dilute some of the UK's climate change policies, including the plan to outlaw the sale of diesel and petrol cars from 2030, was leaked to the BBC. 

It prompted Downing Street to issue an unusual late-night statement, and on Wednesday afternoon Sunak confimed the changes in a televised speech. The announcement is believed to have been originally pencilled in for Friday, but the leak threw that plan into disarray.

Sunak confirmed that the ban on the sale of diesel and petrol cars that was due to come into place in 2030 would be pushed back to 2035, and that he would extend the deadline for households to transition to heat pumps. The PM also said he would scrap household energy efficiency targets, and pledged not to introduce taxes on long-haul flights and meat.

A "massive row" broke out in the Conservative MP WhatsApp groups following Tuesday's revelations, according to one senior Tory, with different wings of the party arguing over whether Sunak is right to relax the government's plans for fighting climate change.

Numerous Tory MPs who spoke to PoliticsHome said the shift appeared designed to appeal to the party's "core vote" of people who are more socially conservative but have drifted away from the Conservatives since the 2019 general election.

The step-change is also believed to be influenced by the Tories' victory in July's Uxbridge by-election, for which the campaign was characterised by opposition to Labour London Mayor Sadiq Khan's decision to expand the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ).

But one former minister warned that by attempting to court one voter group, Downing Street risked alienating potential backers in Conservative seats in the south of England, collectively dubbed 'the blue wall', who want to see the government take bold action to tackle climate change.

“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," they said. “In a seat where the Lib Dems are challenging, they will play on this heavily." 

One former secretary of state said the decision suggested panic in Downing Street, with the Conservative party continuing to trail Labour by large, double-digit leads in the opinion polls ahead of next year's general election. The senior Tory pointed to the fact that in late July, Cabinet minister Michael Gove described the 2030 diesel and petrol car ban as "immovable".

“It’s a measure of how nervy they are in the centre that this is now in play," they told PoliticsHome.

Tory Peer Zac Goldsmith, who blamed his June resignation as a foreign office minister on Sunak's apathy for environmental issues, said dozens of Conservative "friends" had contacted him to say the shift in policy "vindicated" his decision to resign as a foreign office minister in June.

"We need an election. Now," Goldsmith, who is a major ally of former PM Boris Johnson, added.

Johnson also weighed into the row on Wednesday afternoon warning government that businesses needed "certainty" about the UK's net zero commitments in order to have the confidence to invest in Britain. "We cannot afford to falter now or in any way lose our ambition for this country," he said.

Lisa Brankin, chair of Ford UK, warned this morning that any plan to relax the 2030 ban would undermine "ambition, commitment and consistency", which the major car-maker "needs" from the government.

Sam Hall, director of the Conservative Environment Network, whose members include some Tory MPs, warned government that "the public's perception of the Conservative Party would be damaged if it was seen to be weakening its overall climate commitments".

Former Cabinet minister Damian Green MP, who chairs the One Nation group of moderate Tories, issued a similar warning earlier this summer. He told PoliticsHome: "It would be very damaging to the Conservative party in certain parts of the country, particularly with demographics like younger people, if it was seen to be retreating from its environmental commitments".

However, the decision – which the government insists will not affect the overall goal of achieving net zero by 2050 – was welcomed by MPs in the so-called New Conservative group, who sit on the right-wing of the Tory party.

Members Miriam Cates and Danny Kruger praised the "pragmatic decision" in a letter to Sunak this morning.

“It is true that, for the better off, electric vehicles are rapidly becoming a viable and attractive purchase. Many of those who backed our party in 2019 are not in that situation, however,” the group wrote. 

“As a party that represents people from Kingswood to Keighley, we must make sure that the policy decisions we take leave the working people of this country better and not worse off.” 

Ben Bradley, the Conservative MP for Mansfield, said he welcomed the expected changes to net zero policy, arguing that plans in their current form risk forcing people into spending money on electric cars and new boilers "that they can't necessarily manage".

"A lot of this is pushed forward by people who've never had to worry about paying their energy bill to be quite honest, who are in London where their public transport network is brilliant, and don't recognise that that just is not the case in 95 per cent of the country," he told PoliticsHome.

The change in tack from Sunak comes as part of a wider bid by the Prime Minister to be more bold heading to the autumn as tries to improve his party's chances of avoiding defeat at the next election - even if it means upsetting some of his own MPs.

Speaking to PoliticsHome earlier this month, an ally of Sunak said there would be a "real step change" from the PM. 

“The next few weeks are going to be about Rishi’s government, not pleasing and stabilising the party. It’ll be: ‘I’m the bloody leader and this is how I want to govern’," they said.

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