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Rishi Sunak's Net Zero "Vibe Shift" Could Backfire At The Ballot Box

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visiting Shell St Fergus Gas Plant in Aberdeenshire (Alamy)

5 min read

Rishi Sunak seems to have found a new dividing line with Labour on climate policy, but it's a high-risk strategy that could backfire if he is seen by voters to be uninterested in urgent environmental issues.

A week that began with pro "motorist" rhetoric from Sunak, including a review of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs), ended with the sight of four Greenpeace activists scaling the roof of his North Yorkshire manor house. They wrapped a massive black cloak around his private home in protest against the Prime Minister's highly-contentious decision to expand the drilling of oil and gas in the North Sea.

The quartet were arrested by North Yorkshire Police shortly after their stunt on Thursday morning and later released on bail.

By the time the Greenpeace activists had made it onto Sunak's roof, the PM was already in California where he is spending a week-long holiday with his wife and two children. But aside from the obvious security concerns, the image of activists in boiler suits sitting on the Prime Minister's roof won't necessarily be seen by Downing Street as unhelpful.

No. 10 has decided that the question of how to tackle climate change is a weakness for Labour, and a dividing line that the Tory party should pursue in the run-up to the next general election, which opinion polls currently suggest the Conservatives will lose.

The Prime Minister says he is still committed to the government's climate pledge to achieve net zero by 2050, as per the UK's legal obligations, but that he wants to go about it in a "proportionate and pragmatic way that doesn't unnecessarily give people more hassle and more costs in their lives".

Downing Street denies that Sunak's recent shift in tone on the environment was influenced by the Conservatives' surprise victory in the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election last month. But while Starmer and Labour's candidate Danny Beale actively distanced themselves from Labour London mayor Sadiq Khan's decision to expand the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to the area, it was local opposition to the proposal that clinched it for the Tories. 

Privately Tory strategists believe that their success in Uxbridge can be a template for wider attacks on Labour by accusing Starmer's party of being environmental "zealots". They'll try to present Labour as "nutters", according to one figure familiar with No. 10 thinking.

Conservative ministers have continually sought to conflate Labour with the environmental pressure group Just Stop Oil, which has held a number of disruptive protests, in a bid to persuade voters that the opposition party backs their often divisive tactics. They also claim that Starmer's policy of blocking new oil and gas exploration in the North Sea will prop up Russian industry.

But the issue for Sunak, according to Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University, is that by trying to hammer Labour on questions about the environment, he risks looking disinterested in tackling climate change and "alienating" huge numbers of voters who do consider it a priority.

“While there are bound to be some voters for whom the 'end the war on car drivers' line will resonate, there could be just as many – if not more – who are put off by it," he told PoliticsHome.

"Especially among the university-educated, more affluent, and environmentally-conscious Tory supporters who still believe it should be possible to 'vote blue, go green'.”

Greenpeace activists protest by sitting on the roof of Rishi Sunak's family home (Alamy)

Rachel Wolf, who co-wrote the Conservative party's 2019 general election manifesto, issued a similar warning in a recent interview with PoliticsHome. She said there was a "massive risk" of Tory high command "overinterpreting and misinterpreting" their victory in Uxbridge, and that pandering to net zero sceptics on the Conservative backbenches would not be a vote winner at the next general election, which is expected to take place at some point in 2024.

An ex-Conservative party strategist and former colleague of Sunak told PoliticsHome the Prime Minister is "instinctively" lukewarm about net zero and that when he talks about a "proportionate and pragmatic" approach to achieving it, this language reflects his genuine view: he's not opposed to net zero, but not enormously enthusiastic about it, either. 

"He won't have taken a lot of persuading" to water down the net zero language, they said.

Some Conservative figures who are passionate about net zero say that currently they are not hugely worried by Sunak shift in tone. It's more about tinkering with the "vibe", they argue, and point out that the fundamentals of Government's net zero policy are largely unchanged. The Prime Minister remains committed to achieving the target by 2050, and says he is going ahead with plans to outlaw the sale of petrol and diesel cars from 2030 despite pressure on him from dozens of Conservative MPs and peers to postpone the UK's transition to electric vehicles. 

More relaxed 'green Tories' are also reassured by the fact that Sunak is surrounded by people who support net zero like Will Tanner, who leads on policy in Downing Street.

According to Bale, the shift in language looks like a defensive strategy designed to mitigate the scale of their anticipated defeat to Labour next year. 

"It’s more to do with mobilising the core vote and trying to bring back some of the people at the margins who voted for them at the 2019 general election,” said Bale.

“The economy isn’t going to give them much to campaign on, and neither will the state of the NHS. Small boats might give them a bit, and a pro-motorist message perhaps a little bit more. But it won’t be enough.”

Electoral implications aside, some Tory figures are also concerned that by tweaking the "vibe" on net zero, ministers risk deterring green investment in the UK by inadvertently sending the signal to industry that government is backtracking on its policy commitments.

Mark Sommerfeld, deputy director of policy at the Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology (REA) , which represents around 500 renewable and clean industry organisations in the UK, admitted to PoliticsHome that the government's latest messaging on net zero "sends a very confusing signal to the market".

With Sunak under pressure to start reducing Labour's large, double-digit leads in the opinion polls, he has stepped up the attacks on Labour hoping that he can identify a weakness. But by picking a fight with Starmer on the environment, the Prime Minister runs the risk of inflicting more damage on his general election prospects, instead of improving them. 

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