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Tory Moderates Plan To Fight "Very Damaging" Shift From Net Zero

Rishi Sunak visits Shell St Fergus Gas Plant in Peterhead, Aberdeenshire to announce new North Sea oil and gas licences (Alamy)

4 min read

Moderate Conservative MPs are planning an organised pushback against growing calls from elsewhere in the Tory party for the government to dilute its net zero agenda.

Rishi Sunak says the government is committed to achieving net zero by 2050. 

However, recent announcements have triggered concern among some Conservative MPs that he could be prepared to water down the government's green agenda in a bid to boost his party's prospects at the next general election, which is expected to take place in 2024, despite polling showing that the public is broadly supportive of environmental policy.

The Prime Minister has confirmed that the 2030 ban of the sale of petrol and diesel cars remains in place, but he has made a concerted effort in recent days to rail against a number of environmental policies including outlining a staunchly "pro-motorist" agenda in The Sunday Telegraph, and significantly liberalising the extraction of fossil fuels in the North Sea in opposition to net zero goals to increase the use of sustainable energy.  

Damian Green, the former Cabinet minister who chairs the One Nation group of Tory MPs, told PoliticsHome it would be "very damaging" to the Tory party if it is "seen to be retreating from its environmental commitments" in the run-up to the next general election.

Conservative MPs in the moderate wing of the party plan to become more organised and visible in the coming weeks, and a key part of their renewed agenda will be encouraging Sunak to retain the government's commitment to delivering net zero as other Tory voices urge him to slow down its plans for tackling climate change, PoliticsHome understands.

The environment has emerged as a major dividing line among Tories in recent weeks after they picked up a surprise victory at the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-earlier this month. 

In west London, the Conservatives successfully targeted their campaign at local opposition to mayor Sadiq Khan's plan to expand the Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ), and since then figures on the right of the party have argued that Sunak should think again about the government's wider environment policy and the plan to hit net zero by 2050.

Over the weekend, 40 Conservative MPs and Lords, including former Cabinet ministers Sir Jacob Rees Mogg, Sir Iain Duncan Smith and ex-Brexit negotiator Lord Frost, wrote to the PM urging him to delay the plan to ban the sale of petrol and diesel cars from 2030.

There is concern among moderate Tories who strongly support the net zero agenda that the conversation risks being dominated by voices from the right of the party.  

“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,” Green told PoliticsHome.

Already Sunak has ordered a review into low-traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) in England, telling The Sunday Telegraph he wanted to help people "use their cars to do all the things that matter to them". Supporters of LTNs say preventing cars from using certain roads helps reduce local pollution, but critics argue they harm motorists and actually lead to severe traffic elsewhere.

The review will be led by the Department for Transport, which hopes to complete the work "as swiftly as possible", Sunak's press secretary said on Monday morning. 

On Monday, the PM used to a trip to Scotland to announce that the government would grant "hundreds" of licences allowing the drilling for oil and gas in the North Sea as part of plans to grow domestic energy supply.  “Now more than ever, it’s vital that we bolster our energy security and capitalise on that independence to deliver more affordable, clean energy to British homes and businesses," said Sunak, who argued research shows that boosting domestic supplies is more environmentally-friendly than importing energy from abroad.

The announcement was lambasted by Conservative MP Chris Skidmore, the former energy minister who is spearheading calls for the government to stick to its net zero agenda.

The move is "the wrong decision at precisely the wrong time", said the Kingswood MP.

He told PA on Monday morning: "It is on the wrong side of a future economy that will be founded on renewable and clean industries and not fossil fuels.

“It is on the wrong side of modern voters who will vote with their feet at the next general election for parties that protect, and not threaten, our environment. And it is on the wrong side of history, that will not look favourably on the decision taken today."

Sunak's press secetary disagreed with Skidmore, however, saying boosting domestic energy supply was "totally compatible" with achieving net zero by 2050. "By importing oil and gas from other countries, you are not only reducing your domestic supply, you are also increasing costs by importing and potentially also increasing carbon emmissions," they said.

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