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Rishi Sunak Warned Watering Down Net Zero "Will Not Help" Tory Party Prospects

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Alamy)

5 min read

A co-author of the Conservative party's 2019 manifesto has urged Rishi Sunak to stick with the government's net zero pledge, warning that watering it down and indulging sceptics will not be a vote winner at the general election.

Rachel Wolf, who wrote the party's general election-winning manifesto four years ago, and is now a founding partner at consultancy Public First, said there was a "massive risk" of ministers "overinterpreting and misinterpreting" the Tory party by-election win Uxbridge and South Ruislip, where debates about environmental policy dominated the campaign.

The Conservatives' surprise win in the west London seat last week, where the Tories held onto Boris Johnson's former Uxbridge constituency with a majority of just 495, subsequently prompted a debate among Conservative MPs about whether the result was evidence that the public wants the government to dilute its plans for achieving net zero by the year 2050. Conservative campaigners had framed the vote for Tory candidate Steve Tuckwell to appeal to significant local opposition to  London mayor Sadiq Khan expanding the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ)

Since that result, Conserative MPs on the right of the parliamentary party have called on the PM to rethink his strategy for tackling climate change. Jacob Rees Mogg, the former business secretary, said the Uxbridge result demonstrated the need for the Tory party to do away with "unpopular, expensive green policies”.

On Monday morning, Sunak said government would pursue the 2050 net zero target in a "proportionate and pragmatic way" which "doesn’t unnecessarily give people more hassle and more costs", casting doubt on his watertight commitment to the pledge. Sunak's spokesperson later added that mechanisms for hitting the net zero target, like the plan to outlaw the sale of petrol and diesel cars from the year 2030, were "under review".

Levelling up secretary Michael Gove this morning later clarified that the 2030 ban was "immovable", but hinted that the phasing out of gas boilers could be slowed down. 

Wolf told PoliticsHome ministers would be wrong to interpret the Conservative victory in Uxbridge and South Ruislip last week as a vote against the net zero agenda, and urged the government to not get caught up in "a big overreaction".

“There is a massive risk of overinterpreting and misinterpreting the Uxbridge result," she said.

“There’s a big difference between a policy lke ULEZ, which people can see comes with very tangible costs and feel is unfair, which you can argue is true, and the general net zero policies, many of which don’t have those.

"More importantly, people remain very supportive of net zero and climate policy, and there have been lots of policies over the last twenty years that have come with costs but haven’t caused big electoral issues."

Uxbridge by-election

She added that Public First polling has consistently found majority support for net zero across every voter group, "whether it be red wall, older, younger or metropolitan voters".

 "It might not be their top priority, but they care about it," she said.

“The government needs to be focused on what really matters to people and that is the economy, the cost of living, the National Health Service, crime, and the core areas where people want to see rapid progress on climate policy. They should not be filling the airwaves as net zero sceptics, which some people want them to do, as that is not going to help them.”

There are Conservatives on the moderate wing of the parliamentary party who are privately exasperated with calls from some Tory back benchers for the Prime Minister to rethink net zero. One former secretary of state said the statements were "lunacy".

Wolf was echoed by Adam Hawksbee, deputy director at cente-right think tank Onward, who said the government would be "mad" to water down its stance on achieving net zero.

"The public want action on the environment and energy, and they are unforgiving of politicians who break their promises," said Hawskbee, who warned that ditching net zero could cost the Conservative party a quarter of its current support and deter a significant number of potential voters at the next general election, which is set to take place in 2024.

"The important thing is that policies don't exacerbate the cost of living crisis – which is why we [Onward] called for the hydrogen levy on households to be scrapped, but also why we want increased investments in lower cost renewables," he told PoliticsHome.

They were echoed by Craig Oliver, former 10 Downing Street director of communications for ex-prime minister David Cameron, who said "history will take a dim view of politicians on all sides" who back away from net zero "because of a single by-election result".

Writing in The House, Oliver said: "Trying to get our economy to net zero is an epic task. It will require creativity and bravery from politicians, educating us all and taking us through several pain barriers. It also requires both parties to form a consensus that the other will not overturn at the slightest whiff of electoral advantage."

The Uxbridge result also triggered a row within Labour, with leader Keir Starmer urging mayor Khan to consider how ULEZ can be tweaked in light of the shock defeat. Danny Beales, the unsuccessful Labour candidate, described it as a "bad policy" which "cut us off at the knees”. 

Oliver wrote: "Would Clement Atlee and Margaret Thatcher have been so successful if they did not see part of their job as being educators and turned back at the first difficulty?"

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